Raul Vega is retiring Jan. 28 after more than two decades as a Cook County circuit judge, the last three as the presiding judge of the court's domestic violence division. Credit: Veronica Martinez for Injustice Watch

This investigation was a collaboration between the Reader and Injustice Watch.

Elizabeth Francy first encountered Cook County Circuit Judge Raúl Vega when her contentious divorce and child custody case was transferred to his courtroom more than a decade ago. She said Vega often yelled at her in court and appeared to treat women differently than men. She and other women with cases in his courtroom also said they were told to wear skirts or “dress pretty” to appease him. Francy said his handling of her family’s case did irreparable harm to her and her children.

“It is not a system designed for anyone to be at their best,” she told Injustice Watch and the Chicago Reader. “But Vega makes it that much harder.”

Chief Judge Timothy Evans quietly announced in December that Vega was retiring after almost 20 years on the bench, the last three as the top judge of the court’s domestic violence division. A few days later, a possible reason emerged: his fellow judges on the court’s executive committee had referred him to the state body that investigates judicial misconduct for a comment he allegedly made to another judge.

The press release from Evans’s office included no details on what Vega allegedly said or to whom. Nor did it clarify whether Vega’s retirement was related to the allegation. Phone calls to Evans’s office and three of the presiding judges led to dead ends.

Illinois’s judicial accountability system and Evans’s silence make it likely that the public will never know the details of the allegations against Vega. Complaints made to the Judicial Inquiry Board are confidential, and the board will be forced to drop any investigation when Vega officially steps down on Friday.

“No one gets a hard landing in Cook County,” Francy wrote in a text message to Injustice Watch and the Chicago Reader after learning of Vega’s retirement.

Instead, Vega will get a pension of more than $14,000 a month for the rest of his life.

For the past several months, Injustice Watch and the Chicago Reader have been investigating allegations about Vega’s behavior in the courtroom and the experiences of women who encountered him there. Our investigation uncovered accusations from women that Vega mistreated them, found concerns about his temperament raised by attorneys and former staff members, and highlighted examples of Vega making questionable decisions that were reversed by the Illinois appellate court.

All the advocates we spoke to emphasized that the issues in Cook County’s domestic violence courthouse go beyond one judge. Accessibility to court services for survivors seeking legal protection has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, advocates said, while domestic violence-related homicides in Chicago—which disproportionately affect Black people—have increased.

But the advocates said Evans’s decision to promote Vega to lead the domestic violence courthouse, despite warning signs about his alleged treatment of women in his courtroom, illustrates the problems with a system that lacks concern for survivors facing court proceedings. Evans’s spokesperson did not respond to most of our questions for this story. Vega also declined to comment for this story.

The survivors we spoke with denounced a judicial accountability system that they said allows judges to protect their own and will allow Vega to retire without facing consequences for his alleged actions.

“It’s his turn to be held accountable to the same thing that everyone else in this world is held accountable to,” said Francy. “Misogyny in his courtroom has been rampant for years, and it’s time that Cook County does not allow it to happen.”

‘​​Dress up, look very pretty, and smile’

Alisa Holman said she remembered one time in Vega’s courtroom when he looked at her and winked. It was one of many times she said she felt disrespected by Vega. (Image credit: Veronica Martinez for Injustice Watch) Credit: Veronica Martinez

Before becoming a judge, Vega was an attorney in private practice with a few connections up his sleeve. A decade into his career, Vega was working as an attorney for the Chicago City Council committee tasked with overseeing the sale of city property. The alderman who chaired the committee at the time, Luis Gutiérrez, simultaneously hired Vega to be the treasurer for his congressional campaign.

Vega was twice implicated as an associate in scandals involving Gutiérrez. In 1991, the Chicago Tribune reported that Gutiérrez had accepted campaign donations from a city contractor who had been granted city land by the alderman’s committee and whose lawyer happened to be one of Vega’s associates. The contractor’s lawyer told the Tribune his association with Vega had nothing to do with his client getting the land and Vega said the contributions did not violate any ethics laws.

Gutiérrez also got in trouble in 1998 for underpaying his property taxes. He said he had provided his tax paperwork to Vega, who was then his personal attorney and accountant. But Gutiérrez told the Chicago Sun-Times that he wouldn’t dismiss him. 

Despite the scandals, Vega was elected as a Cook County circuit judge in 2002. A year later, he was assigned to the domestic relations division, where he heard divorce, child custody, and domestic violence cases.

That’s where Francy’s case began in 2004, in the same way most cases of domestic violence begin in Cook County: with an emergency order of protection. During the first few years, the judge on her case was Grace Dickler, who ordered a 63-page divorce decree and permanent restraining order against Francy’s ex-husband. Francy said Dickler was one of the first people who genuinely believed her when she spoke about the abuse she was enduring from her then-husband.

But things worsened in 2010 when Francy’s drawn-out child custody case was assigned to Vega after she filed for permission to leave the state for a job. Meanwhile, Dickler was appointed to preside over a new division and courthouse dedicated solely to domestic violence cases.

Francy said Vega’s demeanor was the polar opposite of Dickler’s. Instead of treating her like a victim of abuse, she said his official rulings characterized her as a cold, uncaring woman who was trying to keep her ex-husband from their children. 

Misogyny was also rampant in his courtroom, Francy said. On one occasion, she said, her attorney suggested she wear skirts because “Vega doesn’t like women that wear pants.” Francy also said she overheard Vega complimenting young women in his courtroom for wearing skirts. She, too, initially began changing her appearance, but near the end of her case she stopped showing up altogether because she felt Vega was not going to give her fair treatment.

Alisa Holman said she had an eerily similar experience in Vega’s courtroom.

In 2013, Holman’s ex-husband filed for sole custody of their ten-year-old daughter in Vega’s court. A friend who worked as a paralegal and was familiar with family court told her to “dress up, look very pretty, and smile” to counteract what she perceived as Vega’s bias against  women.

“So, I did,” Holman said in a phone interview with Injustice Watch and the Reader. “I changed my appearance, and I remember on one occasion I was sitting up front in the courtroom and I don’t know if (Vega) remembered me from another hearing or thought I was an attorney, but he winked at me.” 

Like most survivors of domestic violence, Holman initially represented herself in court. Without an attorney, she wasn’t able to understand the court proceedings. She was eventually able to find an attorney, but by then Vega had granted her ex-husband temporary custody of their daughter until matters were sorted out.

She remembers feeling terrified every time she went to court, thinking that she could lose her daughter for good.

She said Vega humiliated her in open court several times. She recalled one time when Vega learned that she was engaged to her boyfriend and asked to see her engagement ring. When she told him she didn’t have a ring, Holman said Vega jokingly asked others in the courtroom if they would get married without a ring.

“Just to be talked to and treated the way that I was, to not have a voice, even now, it hurts,” Holman said. “It was so traumatizing.”

Alisa Holman said she felt humiliated by Cook County Circuit Judge Raul Vega when her child custody case ended up in his courtroom. (Photo credit: Olivia Obineme for Injustice Watch) Credit: Olivia Obineme for Injustice Watch

Holman and Francy both wrote online about their experiences with Vega, hoping to bring attention to his alleged behavior. Francy’s post on the Robing Room, an online forum that allows people to evaluate judges anonymously, was one of more than 70 between 2008 and 2021 that accused Vega of being incompetent, disgraceful, biased, or sexist. Many of the anonymous claims mirror Holman’s and Francy’s allegations: that Vega makes sexually inappropriate comments in court, is biased against women, and puts the survivors at increased risk of violence.

Red flags about Vega’s alleged demeanor on the bench were also noted over the years by fellow judges and lawyers.

Injustice Watch and the Reader reviewed three dozen cases where litigants in Vega’s courtroom appealed his decisions to a higher court. In a half-dozen of them, the appellate court reversed Vega’s rulings in full or in part. In one 2015 case, for example, Vega implemented a child custody agreement without the consent of either parent and without an evidentiary hearing. According to court records, Vega said, “at this point someone needs to make a decision” and “I’m making the decision.” The appeals court overturned his decision.

When Vega ran for retention in 2014, the Chicago Council of Lawyers noted that he had a reputation for being “hard-working” and “knowledgeable,” but also said some lawyers reported that he “can become short-tempered on the bench.” The council rated him as qualified for retention and he won with 75% of the vote. The Chicago Council of Lawyers did not respond to our request for comment about his evaluation. 

A few years later, he got a big promotion.

‘Somebody said to me there may be some misogynism going on’ 

In 2018, Evans promoted Vega to presiding judge of the domestic violence division, putting him in charge of overseeing 12 judges and the operations of the domestic violence courthouse. In a statement at the time, Evans said Vega had “developed a broad base of knowledge and insight about the law” and that his “experience and commitment to justice and fairness” would serve him well in his new role.

But one of Vega’s former top staffers says his promotion was a change for the worse.

Leslie Landis served as the domestic violence courthouse administrator for over a decade, working directly under three different presiding judges. In her role, she worked closely with all the judges in the division. She said she also made it a priority to coordinate partnerships with advocacy organizations.

But that changed when Vega became the presiding judge, Landis said. With the two previous presiding judges, Grace Dickler and Sebastian Patti, “the advocacy community had pretty good access and open, working relationships,” she said. “But (Vega) just shut all of that down.” 

Landis said Vega kept a tight rule on the domestic violence division. He cut all lines of communication between her and the advocates, she said, and tracked her whereabouts by requiring her to report her activity in half-hour increments. 

He kept a hammer on his desk where a nameplate would usually be, Landis said—a concerning image in a courthouse where women who have experienced violence and abuse came in everyday seeking help and protection. When Landis suggested that Vega remove it from his desk, she said he mockingly asked her, “Oh, is it a microaggression?” He eventually moved the hammer to the back of his door, she said.

She alleged he often yelled at her in public and described his behavior toward her as a “campaign of abuse, threats, embarrassment, and humiliation.” 

His behavior, she says, wasn’t a secret. After a year of working under Vega, Landis said she complained to Evans. He offered to transfer her to his office, where she worked until her retirement last August.

After Landis left, the relationship between the advocates who work out of the domestic violence courthouse and Vega worsened, Landis and several advocates told us.

According to e-mails obtained by Injustice Watch and the Reader, the new courthouse administrator, Shirley Grau, chastised advocates and court staff in late March 2020 for proposing a plan to shift to remote operations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic without Vega’s approval. Grau did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In response to the e-mail, Loretta Line, the administrator for the suburban division of the courthouse, wrote that it was “a sad day at the Chicago DV Courthouse when the attempts of the (domestic violence) agencies housed in the courthouse to assist the public remotely, during a pandemic, are faced with such fierce admonishment.”

A year later, Amanda Pyron, executive director of The Network, a nonprofit that works with survivors of domestic violence, spoke during a Cook County Board of Commissioners meeting about a mother with a child who was turned away from the courthouse at 3 PM in 90-degree weather because of confusion about the restarting of in-person hearings stemming from Vega’s orders. “I just don’t understand how 3 o’clock in the afternoon is too late for a survivor of domestic violence to get justice,” Pyron said. Evans later overturned Vega’s order.

In early August 2021, advocates took their concerns about Vega directly to Evans during a live talk show at the Hideout in Chicago with the Reader’s Ben Joravsky and Injustice Watch senior reporter Maya Dukmasova. Evans rarely speaks publicly about his colleagues, and until this point, had not done so regarding Vega.

Near the end of the show, an attorney in the audience who represents survivors in domestic violence court said Vega was “a consistent obstacle to survivors of gender-based violence” and asked Evans if he would consider removing him as head of the domestic violence division. As chief judge, Evans has the power to remove or reassign judges in any of the court’s divisions.

“I hate to even think about removing a judge, but yes, ma’am,” Evans said in response. “I think he’s a decent guy, but somebody said to me there may be some misogynism going on, and I can’t tolerate that in my court.”

Evans’s office did not respond to repeated questions about his comments at the Hideout. He wouldn’t remove Vega as presiding judge until four months later.

When he finally did reassign Vega to nonjudicial duties in late December for the alleged comment he made to another judge, it was after he had already announced that Vega would be retiring January 28.

The advocates and women who spoke to Injustice Watch and the Reader about their experiences with Vega said they are relieved that he will no longer be serving as a judge and presiding over the domestic violence courthouse. And they are optimistic about the possibility for structural change under the new presiding judge of the domestic violence division, Judith Rice. A former prosecutor and the first female commissioner of both Chicago’s Department of Water and Department of Transportation, Rice is the first Black person to lead the domestic violence courthouse.

Amanda Pyron hopes that Rice will build on the successes that advocates have achieved in the past year—such as 24/7 access to the courthouse for people filing emergency orders of protection—and make other changes to support survivors that she said wouldn’t have been possible under Vega.

But she and others were frustrated by the lack of transparency about what Vega allegedly said to his colleague and the system of judicial accountability that allows him to retire without facing consequences.

“I would hope that if this comment that was made by Judge Vega to another judge was seen to have an undue effect on justice to survivors of domestic violence that it would be made public,” Pyron said. “Because survivors have a right to know if a person presiding over their case was biased against them, was sexist or a misogynist.”