Franklin Valderrama (courtesy of Jack Leyhane)

President Donald Trump has nominated Oak Park resident and current Cook County Circuit Court Associate Judge Franklin Valderrama to become a federal district court judge. 

Valderrama’s nomination was one of three Trump made on Feb. 5 to fill vacancies on the federal bench in Illinois. It, coincidentally, was also the day the U.S. Senate voted to acquit Trump in his impeachment trial. 

The nominations were made after consultations will Illinois Democratic senators Richard Durbin and Tammy Duckworth. The nomination of Valderrama and the other two nominees, Madison County Circuit Court Judge David Dugan and federal magistrate judge Iain Johnston, was praised by the senators in a joint statement.

“We are pleased that the president nominated Judge Dugan, Judge Johnston and Judge Valderrama to fill vacant district court judgeships in Illinois,” the joint statement issued by Durbin and Duckworth said. “All three nominees were carefully reviewed by non-partisan screening committees we established to evaluate potential, and we expect these nominees to be diligent, thoughtful, and principled District Court judges. We look forward to guiding their nominations through the Senate.”

Valderrama is the second Oak Parker to nominated to the federal bench by Trump. Last year Trump elevated Mary Margaret Rowland from the position of federal magistrate to federal district court judge. She was confirmed by the Senate in a voice vote last July. Rowland is believed to be the first openly gay person named to the federal bench by Trump.

Valderrama, 57, has consistently voted in Democratic primaries, according to voting records kept by the Cook County Clerk’s office. Traditionally, senators have a big role in approving or blocking judicial nominees in their states. 

With Illinois having two Democratic senators, that means that Durbin and Duckworth can influence who the president nominates for the federal bench in Illinois.

Valderrama and the other nominees must be approved by the Senate before they can take their new posts. Their nominations will be initially sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I’m obviously honored to be nominated,” Valderrama said in a brief conversation with Wednesday Journal. “Other than that, I don’t really have anything further.”

Valderrama is perhaps best known as the judge who in November 2015 ordered the city of Chicago to release the video of police officer Jason Van Dyke shooting teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times and killing him. 

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration had refused release the video of the 2014 shooting and argued in court against making it public. The release of the video prompted large protests, murder charges being filed against Van Dyke and the firing of then-Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy. 

Valderrama, who has lived in Oak Park for more than 20 years, has been a Cook County associate judge since 2007. As an associate judge, Valderrama was appointed to his position rather than elected, but other than that has the powers of any other Cook County judge. 

He has long served in the Chancery Division of the Cook County Circuit Court, which generally deals with issues where monetary damages are not the prime consideration but the legal issues are often difficult. 

“That’s the Cadillac division,” said veteran lawyer and longtime judicial observer Jack Leyhane, who writes the “For What It’s Worth” blog. “You get some of the toughest cases and some of the thorniest issues, some very difficult and demanding and gut-wrenching work. Obviously, he is well regarded by his peers and his colleagues because he wouldn’t be there otherwise.”  

Leyhane said he has appeared before Valderrama a number of times.

“My own reactions with him have been uniformly positive,” Leyhane said. “I like the guy. He’s a nice man and I’m happy as heck for him. I was surprised to see the appointment.”

Valderrama earned his law degree from DePaul University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Prior to being appointed his position as a judge in 2007, he was a partner in the law firm of Sanchez, Daniels & Hoffman LLP where he specialized in trial litigation. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at UIC John Marshall Law School.

Ex-Oak Park cop named a federal judge

A former Oak Park police officer is on his way to becoming a federal judge after the U.S. Senate voted 81-12 on Feb. 12 to confirm the nomination of John F. Kness to fill a vacancy in the Northern District of Illinois. 

Kness’ first job upon graduating from Northwestern University was as an Oak Park police patrol officer. He was a patrol officer in Oak Park from 1998 until 2000. Kness subsequently went to law school at Northwestern and is currently working as the general counsel for the College of DuPage. 

Kness will soon be sworn in for his new position as a U.S. District Court judge in the Northern District of Illinois. Federal district court judges are the trial judges in the federal judicial system. 

All 12 of the senators who voted against confirming Kness are Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-New York) and former presidential candidates Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Kamala Harris (D-California).

But Kness had the support of his home state senators, Richard Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, both of whom are Democrats.

“We are pleased that the Senate confirmed Mr. Kness to be a district judge,” said Durbin and Duckworth in a joint press release. “Mr. Kness was carefully reviewed by the nonpartisan screening committee we established to evaluate potential candidates, and we expect him to be a diligent, thoughtful, and principled district judge.”

Durbin and Duckworth have an arrangement with Illinois congressional Republicans in Illinois, to present a balanced slate of recommendations to President Donald Trump who nominated Kness to fill federal district court vacancy last summer.  

Prior to becoming general counsel at the College of DuPage, Kness served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Northern District of Illinois, with stints in the national security and cybercrimes, narcotics, and general crimes sections. 

After graduating cum laude from Northwestern’s law school, Kness served as a law clerk to Judge William H. Pryor Jr., of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.   

Kness declined an interview request from Wednesday Journal.

Bob Skolnik

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