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On the evening of June 19, 1969, attorney John Paul Stevens was playing catch with his youngest daughter, Sue, on the lawn of his home in Chicago’s modest Beverly neighborhood when the phone call came that would change his life.
Across town, Stevens’s beloved Cubs had just returned home after suffering a string of defeats on the road. These were the Cubs Stevens, 49, knew best: perennial losers, a ballclub that serialized disappointment across decades. Yet Stevens was not without hope: the Cubs currently led the National League East, and in each toss to his young daughter the lawyer could allow himself to dream of the Cubs’ first World Series in more than two decades.
Maybe it was a year for hope. In exactly one month, Apollo 11 would depart for the moon. One month after that, the Woodstock music festival would be winding down “Three Days of Peace and Music” at a farm in upstate New York.
Stevens’s wife, Betty, beckoned him inside. He strode past his older daughters, Kathryn and Elizabeth, prone on their bellies and watching television in the manner of American teenagers. The ABC Evening News that night carried five different stories on Vietnam — each one a disconcerting reminder that their 20-year-old son, John Jr., recently drafted although not old enough to vote, would soon be deployed in the conflict.
The phone call was from the president of the Illinois Bar Association who, along with the president of the Chicago Bar, had been tasked with forming a Special Commission to investigate allegations of bribery and misconduct by justices on the Illinois Supreme Court. According to the bar president, they needed a “fearless and impartial” attorney to lead the investigation and had zeroed in on Stevens — quietly respected but little known.
Stevens, ear pressed to the phone, knew what they really needed: some damn fool who believed enough in fairness and due process to commit what would likely amount to career suicide. For an attorney practicing in Chicago who might some day argue a case before the justices, acting as Chief Counsel for the investigation risked making powerful enemies with long memories. As the Chicago Daily News later put it, “It is a job no attorney relishes — a job from which, in fact, numerous lawyers literally ran.”
In a town that famously crushed dissenting voices outside the 1968 Democratic Convention less than a year before, and where the only black defendant in the upcoming trial of the Chicago 8 would soon be shackled and gagged in an American courtroom, the abuse of power against the powerless was a very real circumstance. And it didn’t sit well with John Paul Stevens.
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Original illustrations by Pinch Studios
Stevens, whose penchant for bow ties and refusal to bend the rules elicited respect and curiosity in the chummy world of Chicago law, didn’t have to think long. As his family continued its Rockwellian evening routine around him, the square shooter said yes on the spot. He’d later sum up his feelings about the challenge thusly: “If you’re going to shoot at the king, don’t miss.”
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Sherman Skolnick was a man who demanded notice. Confined to a wheelchair since childhood, the 39-year-old also sported a top row of protruding teeth and thick glasses in heavy black frames that sat high on his temples. When encountered, he was usually shouting about this conspiracy theory or that political scandal. The eccentric founder of the Citizens’ Committee to Clean Up the Courts, Skolnick, although not a lawyer, had spent years filing numerous lawsuits against public officials and government agencies alleging all manner of malfeasance. His lack of success in these ventures did little to deter his fervor.
Skolnick was an unreliable crackpot, a man who shouted “Fire!” at the first puff of smoke… or even in the complete absence of smoke. But this time, there was indeed an incipient blaze. Skolnick suspected a judge on the Illinois Supreme Court had accepted payment to exonerate a defendant in a case of criminal fraud.
Three years earlier, in 1966, an appeal of People v. Isaacs was before the Illinois Supreme Court. The original charges were a 35-count indictment for state contract fraud against Theodore Isaacs, a politically connected Chicago lawyer and businessman, and former high state official. In March of 1967 the court exonerated Isaacs in what appeared to be a unanimous opinion written by Justice Ray Klingbiel.
Skolnick had recently discovered in public records shares of stock in downtown Chicago’s newly formed Civic Center Bank & Trust Company held in the names of Klingbiel’s grandchildren. That might not mean much to most people, but Skolnick connected this thread to that one and before you knew it, he had linked the stock’s acquisition by Klingbiel to Ted Isaacs — a founder and officer of the Civic Center Bank — while his fraud case was pending before the court.
In essence, Skolnick was suggesting a bribe had taken place. This is how it works, the system of corruption in a city famous for it.
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