Hardly anyone chooses to hang around the Criminal Courts building, at 26th and California, any longer than necessary. They aren’t giving anything away here, after all, except trips to Joliet, on buses with barred windows. Witnesses and jurors summoned to 26th Street don’t have to be told twice when they’re free to leave. Court buffs prefer the sleek contemporary setting of the Dirksen Federal Building to this timeworn concrete edifice with the Perry Mason-era courtrooms.
Judges are no more anxious than anyone else to linger here. Judges set their own hours, and on sunny summer days, the choice between 18 holes at Beverly Country Club and another aggravated-battery trial at 26th Street is really no choice at all. According to a recent study by a court watchers group, most judges usually have given 26th Street the slip by 1 PM.
So there’s nothing remarkable about the stillness in the building at 6 PM on this Tuesday in June. Those who had business here today–the guilty and innocent, the relatives and friends, the witnesses and jurors–headed home long ago: via bus or car to their neighborhoods or, with armed chaperons, via elevator, tunnel, and stairs to their divisions and tiers in the adjacent County Jail. Gone are the bailiffs and clerks, the court reporters, the lawyers and judges. The hallways have been swept and mopped; the courtrooms are empty and locked.
Except, as usual, for one recalcitrant courtroom on the top floor: the habitual holdout, courtroom 702–the Honorable William Cousins Jr., aka “The Prince of Darkness,” presiding.
This is no night bond court; it is a felony trial court, one of 30 at 26th Street. As in the other courtrooms, the day begins mid-morning here. (Cousins took the bench at 10:15 AM today.) It just continues later, until the 60-year-old Cousins is satisfied he’s put in an honest day’s work, a day no one can question–a sense he does not often attain before twilight.
Cousins has always worked this way. Fifty years ago, he will tell you proudly, he had the biggest paper route in Memphis, Tennessee. It was immediately upon becoming a judge in 1976 that he sentenced himself to long days of hard labor–he was christened “Prince of Darkness” by one of the first public defenders assigned to his courtroom. He has developed such an enduring presence at 26th Street, it seems like he came with the place. (Indeed, both Cousins and the building first saw the light of day in 1927.) Once again, this early evening, while other judges are strolling down some back nine fairway, or polishing off dinner and reading the paper at home, Cousins is on the bench, listening to John Paul Bradley insist that, no, he didn’t do it, he didn’t shoot Linda Smith and Donald Boston.
Bradley, a 25-year-old black man, is neatly dressed in a powder blue shirt and navy slacks. His hair is trimmed, his chin closely shaven. He is broad-shouldered and muscular, but his face is soft and fleshy. He is a high school graduate, married, and the father of a two-year-old. He delivers furniture for Carson Pirie Scott, a full-time job he has held for two years. He has never been in trouble with the law before. Now he stands charged with attempted murder, armed violence, and aggravated battery, and faces the prospect of at least a half dozen years in an Illinois penitentiary.
The incident that led to these charges occurred in the early morning hours of May 14, 1987, near Bradley’s home at 13th and Sawyer–a seven-minute drive from here. Bradley was sleeping soundly when, at about 4 AM, a car driven by a drunken Linda Smith plowed into a car parked in the vacant lot adjacent to Bradley’s building. The parked car belonged to Bradley’s brother, William Bertha, who also lived in the building. The crash woke Bradley and Bertha, and they ran outside, Bertha instructing his wife to call 911. Bertha yelled to the occupants of the car not to leave, that the police were on their way. The occupants of the car–Smith, her brother Donald Boston, and their sister-in-law–tried to drive off anyway. Then–according to the prosecution–Bradley fired twice into the car with a blue steel .38, one of the bullets nicking Donald Boston’s chest and then passing through Smith’s arm. The state maintains that she still has trouble using the arm today.
The state presented its case on two afternoons last month. Smith, Donald Boston, his brother Ronald–who was in another car nearby when the crash occurred–and a neighbor and longtime friend of the Bostons who says he witnessed the incident from his back porch–all fingered Bradley. The case was continued to today. Earlier this afternoon, Bradley’s brother and cousin testified that they, along with Bradley, chased Smith’s car, but none of them fired any shots or even had a gun. Bradley reiterates this on the stand now. The defense doesn’t dispute that Smith and Boston were shot that night, but insists they must have been shot elsewhere.
The 12 chairs in the jury box are
empty; on the advice of his attorney,
Bradley requested a bench trial, entrusting Cousins with his fate. This was risky: Cousins was once an independent, liberal alderman, but as a judge he has been known to be as hard as the oak benches in the spectators’ gallery, particularly with those who commit violent crimes. He abhors violence; he sees “no justification for people having guns,” he has told me. Friends describe him as a person of strong convictions; most defense attorneys would agree.
There are three doors out of his courtroom. The one to the left of the bench with No Admittance stenciled across it in black is the door to Cousins’s chambers. The walls inside are dominated by plaques praising the “tireless fighter for civil rights and justice for all,” the “symbol of what it means to stand tall in the face of unjust power,” the “man of great faith, abundant wisdom and superb judgment.” The door to the right of the bench leads to the lockup–a barren cell for County jail inmates with cases on the day’s calendar. Near the cell is the elevator that transports inmates between the lockup and the tunnel to the jail. The third door is the main door in the back of the court, the door that Bradley, who has been out on bond since he was indicted, has always used.
Soon Cousins will decide which door Bradley will exit through today. It is surely one of the most critical junctures in Bradley’s life, and one of no small import to his wife and two-year-old child. But whatever Cousins decides, the choice will not trouble the judge tonight, or tomorrow, or the next day. The case is just one of nearly 600 he will dispose of this year. When he finishes a case, “I know I’ve done the best that I can do,” he has told me. “And having done the best that I can do with it, there’s no reason to replay it and agonize about it.”
Bradley is the final witness; at 6:40 PM, the lawyers begin their closing arguments. Bradley’s wife, brother, cousin, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law listen intently in the first row of the spectator benches. Less attentive are the only other spectators besides myself–four raggedly dressed individuals in the back two rows–witnesses for another case scheduled on this courtroom’s docket for this afternoon. They had arrived promptly at 1 PM, as instructed; they have been assured by lawyers that Cousins will yet this evening call their case and hear their testimony. From the front rows you can hear them grumble periodically about the wait.
To the judge’s right, the docket clerk busies himself making notations on files beneath a fluorescent desk lamp. He asked to be assigned to this courtroom; he likes the overtime. Court reporters, on the other hand, are paid by the sheet, and get no bonus for late hours; like most court reporters at 26th Street, the one tapping away in front of the witness stand cringes when assigned to Cousins. (“He’s a good judge and a nice guy, but we don’t like to work all night.”) A few feet from the court reporter, Cousins’s chief deputy, Leo Johnston, is dozing in a chair next to the jury box, his hands folded in his lap, his head bobbing gently. Johnston, 74, knows from experience to pace himself: he has been the judge’s chief deputy since he came on the bench 12 years ago, and there have been many long nights. “He don’t know when to quit, I’ll tell you that,” Johnston has told me. “We’ve had jury trials where we’ve stayed till 2:30 AM, come right back at 8 in the morning; bench trials, stayed till 10, 11 o’clock.” How does Johnston feel about working such hours? “Same as everyone else–wanna go home,” he said with a laugh. “We all complain, but we love him.”
Cousins himself sits four steps above the others, behind a large desk and in front of the flags of the United States and Cook County. He is slight framed, his bespectacled, boyish face topped by short black hair turning gray. He has a modest mustache and a smooth chin. He has been wearing the same humorless expression for hours, his forehead furrowed, his lips sealed as tightly as a refrigerator door. He swivels his high-backed red leather chair in the direction of the testifying witness or the lawyer who is speaking and glances at the person occasionally, but mostly bends over his desk, taking notes. When he speaks, he discloses a reedy voice and an upper jaw overcrowded with teeth.
The defendant, the victims, and all the witnesses in this case, save for a police officer, are black, and the lawyers are white. That’s typical for 26th Street. What’s unusual is that the man on the bench in 702–the man the white lawyers address deferentially–is as black as his robes. At least three-quarters of the defendants at 26th Street are black, and the proportion of victims is similar. But 28 of the 30 judges are white.
Bradley, however, is no better off for the judge being black. When Cousins first came on the bench “a lot of black defense attorneys walked into his courtroom thinking they had a leg up,” says a prosecutor who was assigned to his courtroom then, “They got the word fast.”
Bradley’s attorney, Timothy Eckerman, is finishing his closing argument now, at a few minutes past seven. “The state’s witnesses were totally incredible,” he says for the umpteenth time. “Because there are too many unanswered questions, we will ask that you find, my client not guilty of all charges.”
The assistant state’s attorney, Larry Crown, doesn’t look too concerned about that. He has worked in this courtroom since January, he knows the judge’s sentiments, knows what to say, what not to say, better than Eckerman, who has never tried a case in front of Cousins. “John Bradley got upset,” Crown says, “and as we see all too much in this building and in this city, anger . . . turns people into killers because he had a loaded gun in his hand . . .” Bradley glares at Crown from the defense table and shakes his head repeatedly. Ominously, the late-afternoon sun angling into the courtroom through tall west windows has now lit upon the prosecution’s table–Crown’s legal pad gleams like a polished sheriff’s badge–while Bradley and his lawyer sit in shadows.
At 7:17 PM, Cousins begins to give his verdict.
It will take him several minutes to get to the punch line. The wheels of justice may turn almost incessantly in 702, but they grind at an agonizing rate; what rankles attorneys most is not how late Cousins holds court but how slowly. (The pace in his courtroom “was so goddamned slow I almost had a breakdown,” one defense attorney says of his last appearance here.)
When issuing a ruling, as he is now, Cousins brings new meaning to the word “deliberate.” He first rehashes, in not-very-condensed form, the evidence and arguments he has heard. This is usually followed by a recitation of the potential legal interpretations of the evidence and arguments, and, finally, his loophole-proof ruling. His methodicalness is largely for the benefit of the written record, as logged by the court reporter; in case of an appeal, he wants the reviewing judge “to understand what I do and why I do it.” No Judge likes to be reversed: Cousins seems especially skittish about the possibility.
Bradley, his brown dress shoes drumming madly on the carpet, stares anxiously at Cousins. Finally, Cousins comes to the point: “The court finds there was a gun on the scene, and the testimony placed the gun in the hand of the defendant. The court finds that from that gun in the hand of the defendant came the shots that injured Donald Boston and Linda Smith . . .”
Cousins finds Bradley guilty of armed violence based upon great bodily harm to Linda Smith, and of two counts of aggravated battery. He finds him not guilty of attempted murder. “It may be inferred at times that shooting is an attempt to kill,” Cousins says from the bench. “That inference doesn’t necessarily follow.” But the acquittal on this charge is small consolation to Bradley; the armed-violence conviction mandates a prison sentence of 6 to 15 years.
Bradley’s head sinks into his hand and his fingers clamp down on his mouth. His relatives slump on their bench, shake heads, moan softly. Cousins revokes bond and sets sentencing for June 29. Eckerman entreats Cousins to set a new bond. “The court has no choice,” Cousins says, signing papers his docket clerk has placed in front of him.
Suddenly, Bradley”s mother-in-law, Elizabeth Moore, is standing in the gallery hollering at Cousins. “You take him–why don’t you take all those boys that do all that stuff–all that robbin’ and rapin’?” She accuses Cousins of being “nothin’ but a puppet” for the prosecutor. Cousins watches her, expressionless, then bows over his paperwork again. She stalks out of the courtroom.
Cousins allows Bradley to meet with his wife, Melody, for a moment in front of the spectator benches. Bradley is a convicted felon now, a status that merits an escort from deputy Johnston for the few steps to Melody. Bradley lifts a chain from around his neck and pulls a wallet from a pocket, handing them to Melody. He smiles unconvincingly, shrugs, murmurs a few words. Melody is shaky and tearful. A minute later, Bradley is through the door to the lockup, Johnston on his heels.
It is 7:47 PM. The sun has slunk from the room; a primrose sky blooms in the west-window view. Cousins announces a brief recess. Then, at four minutes to eight, he calls the next case.
It’s another bench trial. The defendant, a young black man, knocked over a liquor store, the state says. Two of the witnesses are hard of hearing, leading to some comical communication failures: Cousins sustains an objection to a question; the witness can’t hear him and keeps answering the question; Cousins and both attorneys holler at him to stop; the witness swivels his head confusedly between the lawyers and the judge.
There is yelling out in the hallway, too: a series of mournful wails–Bradley’s mother-in-law again. Cousins and the lawyers cock their ears for a moment; then they return to work.
The testimony of the four witnesses is brief, and when it finishes, at 8:45 PM, the Prince of Darkness adjourns court. The sun has set; out the windows of 702, beyond the empty jail grounds and stark jail buildings, twinkle lights of two- and three-story homes. Bradley is probably being processed in the intake section in the basement of the jail–being fingerprinted, getting a cell and a number, changing into his jail clothes. He is a prisoner now. Cousins at least gets to go home for a few hours.
“Good afternoon–let me first tune up. Do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do!” The Honorable William Cousins Jr. is assaulting the ears of a group of black high school students in a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals courtroom on the 27th floor of the Dirksen Federal Building on a Thursday in May. He descends the scale as flatly as he climbed it; his singing should be a misdemeanor at least. “Do, ti, la, sol, fa, mi, re, do. Do–You’ve got to ac-cen-tuate the positive, e-li-minate the negative, spread joy–onto the most-est, and don’t mess with Mr. In-between.”
He draws lots of chuckles and a mighty round of applause–the high-schoolers delighted to see this gray-suited VIP humble himself. “If you listen to my singing,” Cousins tells them, “it indicates that, uh–singing was not my calling.” He grins; the students giggle. “What we have to do, each of us, in determining what we’re going to seek to be, is determine where our strengths are. And to go with those strengths. Accentuate the positive. And eliminate the negative.
“Michael Jordan, if he were planning to pursue a law career right now,” Cousins continues, “would be accentuating the negative, and eliminating the positive. His strength is obviously in doing what he’s doing. And he’s worked at it. Even though you have a strength, you have to keep working at it until you strengthen the strength.”
The students have spent the day meeting with judges and lawyers and observing courtroom proceedings as part of a program sponsored by the Cook County Bar Association, a black lawyers’ group. The bar association asked Cousins to relate, in the day’s concluding session, how he became a lawyer and a judge. He has hooked the high-schoolers with his novel opening–not a small feat at 4:30 PM in a stuffy courtroom. But then he launches into a tedious Horatio Alger chronicle of his rise from a humble Mississippi town to a seat on the Cook County bench, sermonizing on the benefits of lofty goals and hard work. Soon hands are stifling yawns and eyes are wandering.
“To succeed, one needs to be prepared to sacrifice, and to give up doing . . . the jitterbug, or certain other dances, when one should be studying and thinking,” he tells them.
He was born in Swiftown, Mississippi, he says, a town “that you are out of before you get into. The biggest thing they had in Swiftown was a cotton gin. My dad picked cotton. . . . Swiftown was no place for a person like me to remain.” When he was five, he tells them, his family moved to Memphis. Because the schools were segregated, he had to walk a long way to get to his grammar school, and his hands “would sometimes be virtually frozen when I got there.” Yet he was “never late and never absent–through rain, shine, sleet, and snow–because I realized the importance of school.” The principal occasionally whipped the students, himself included, he says. “Now, there were reasons for those whippings, of course, because somehow or another I had violated some rule. You have to adhere to rules, and you have to have discipline.”
After he and his parents moved to Chicago, he was “a very assiduous student” at DuSable High School, he says. “I was very committed to my work. Indeed, I’ve always recognized that work was the primary avenue to success.” At the University of Illinois he read and was struck by historian Thomas Carlyle’s writings “about the nobleness of work.” Hard work got him through Harvard Law School, won him military awards in the Korean War, got him elected alderman and judge, he tells them. “Nothing worthwhile for black people comes about but for struggle and sacrifice,” he says; and “I am perhaps an ordinary person who works extraordinarily hard.” Several people have exited before he finishes, the rest award him polite applause.
Besides being an ordinary speaker, Cousins is, indeed, a person of mostly conventional beliefs: he preaches endlessly about the value of honesty, hard work, high goals, fairness, and independence. But he has never messed with Mr. In-between in the way he adheres to these beliefs. He takes them as seriously as he takes everything else; he probably couldn’t pick a side of the street to walk on without considering the implications, and perhaps even the ethics, of the options. “What I say and what I do is said and done on purpose,” Cousins acknowledges.
There was nothing exceptional about Cousins’s vow to be independent of Mayor Daley and his organization when he ran for alderman in 1967; many black candidates of that era promised likewise. The unusual thing was that Cousins won and did not then swap his independence for a dozen Sanitation jobs and some city contracts to be named later. In successful reelection campaigns in 1971 and 1975, he asserted that he had “kept the faith,” had remained “unbossed, unbought, unbowed, and uncorrupted.” No one questioned that motto; he was endorsed for reelection by every liberal and independent group in the city, and the mainstream press as well. “Cousins is the epitome of the independent alderman,” the Daily Calumet editorialized in a 1975 endorsement. “It would be difficult to become more independent than he is.”
During a decade in City Hall, Cousins proved that a black independent could persevere. The hope this gave blacks, some political observers say, helped spur the movement that ultimately lifted Harold Washington to the fifth floor. Had Cousins not quit the council in 1976 to run for judge, he would have eventually run for mayor himself, he says; he thinks odds are good he’d be mayor today.
The sun has long since set on his mayoral dreams, but another major race burns on his horizon now. In 1990, Cook County residents will elect someone to a seat on the Illinois Supreme Court. No black has ever sat on that rarefied bench. And Cousins aims high.
He has not been your stereotypical Cook County judge, and it’s not just his diligence that sets him apart. At a time when the county’s judges are going to court increasingly as defendants, Cousins clearly cannot be bought: his palms are bone-dry; his courtroom squeaks. Questions about his integrity usually concern only his obsession with proving it: he would have trouble saying “bless you” to a sneezing attorney without making sure a court reporter was present to put it on the record.
“I’d be surprised if anybody said he was anything but 100 percent, down-the-middle honest,” a defense attorney says.
Cousins is also about as nonpartisan as a judge can be, many criminal-courts observers say. “Fiercely independent of both prosecution and defense,” the Chicago Council of Lawyers (CCL) called him, when he was running for retention in 1982.
“You see so many judges who give breaks to their favorite lawyers or screw the lawyers they don’t like,” says attorney Brian Telander, once an assistant state’s attorney assigned to Cousins’s courtroom. “But Cousins seems to really put himself above that.”
Defense attorneys wish he were a little more lenient, though, particularly when it comes to sentencing. “His stern attitude is occasionally excessive,” the 1982 CCL evaluation also asserted.
“He gives you a fair trial, but if you lose, you’re getting whacked–you can look for it,” says defense attorney E. Duke McNeil.
That “stern” attitude emanates primarily from his philosophy on human nature. Cousins doesn’t believe people are good or bad, but capable of both. Evil lurks within everyone, he believes; the challenge is to keep the vileness dormant. “People have two sides,” he says. “And it depends on which side is accentuated. We have a large segment of people who accentuate the negative side. That’s where our criminality is generated.” This view “has accounted for my approach to a lot of things,” Cousins says. “It’s caused me to feel the best thing is to limit the wrongs people might do.” There isn’t much positive to accentuate at 26th Street; but he can at least send away the negative.
But Cousins was also the judge who challenged the constitutionality of Illinois’ death penalty in 1979. In a case in which the state sought the death penalty, he ruled that Illinois’ Death Sentence Act vested prosecutors with too much discretion, permitting the death penalty to be “wantonly and freakishly imposed.” Though his ruling was reversed by the Illinois Supreme Court, 4-3, defense attorneys throughout Illinois hailed Cousins, calling his ruling courageous and compassionate. Cousins attributes his position solely to his belief that the statute was unconstitutional. But he also says that when sentencing offenders, his first consideration is the protection of society and not retribution, which he feels is “rather primitive.”
Cousins’s act was in keeping with his “high principles,” attorney McNeil says. If he rules for the prosecution more often than defense attorneys would like, McNeil says, it’s due to these principles of his, not to the manipulation of prosecutors. “He runs his courtroom with a very strong hand, and makes decisions that are generally unaffected by anything,” McNeil says, then he pauses and laughs. “He rules as ‘the Court’ sees fit to rule.”
“The Court” is Cousins’s other alias at 26th Street. “How’s the Court doing?” people inquire of his bailiffs.
While other judges sometimes refer to themselves as “the court,” Cousins does so unfailingly, shunning using first person from the bench like a virus. He says he does so to underline his neutrality. “Also, what I do at times in court is not what I would do personally if I had my options,” he says, “but what the law indicates is to be done. I use the term ‘the court’ to delineate the separation.”
But as is his wont, Cousins takes this practice to peculiar and sometimes comical extremes. He’ll use “the court” several times in a sentence, as in: “The court will handle the matter when the court returns after the court’s recess.” Prosecutors assigned to him have frequently requested transcripts from the court reporter after an especially funny use of “the court”–these “Cousinisms,” as the lawyers call them, winding up tacked to a bulletin board back at the state’s attorney’s office.
Former prosecutor Telander recalls a time that Cousins was concerned about a case that had been delayed many times. “The court was so worried about this case getting to trial,” Cousins told Telander from the bench, “that the court last night had a half bottle of wine.”
Stanley Sacks, an attorney for the city who was a public defender assigned to Cousins’s courtroom ten years ago, still remembers the way Cousins apologized for coming in late one morning. “The court regrets that the court is late,” Cousins said, “but the court had a flat tire.”
Despite his notable public career, despite his intriguing, idiosyncratic courtroom style, Cousins remains largely unheralded: he is well known at 26th Street, and in various state institutions with high walls and barbed fences, but uncelebrated elsewhere; a Prince of Darkness in more ways than one.
Friends attribute his anonymity to a lack of charisma. More specifically, though, perhaps it is due to his extremely guarded nature–he is the wariest public figure I’ve ever met. In interviews, in his rulings from the bench, in addressing civic groups, he speaks as if he feels that what he says can and will be used against him: he buries his views on various subjects under a mountain of qualifiers and disclaimers, even when the views themselves are tepid; he is as quotable as the Illinois Revised Statutes. The exception is when he is asked to discuss some personal attribute; his tongue then unknots and he speaks forcefully, immodestly. “I have never had a circumstance, like a great many celebrities [have], of saying that I was wrong before,” he says, for instance. “Bork may say that. Reagan may say that. I have never said that. I think it’s important to be right the first time.
But therein lies the problem: Cousins frets so much about being wrong. The same fear that drives him to uncommon diligence and scrupulousness, it seems to me, also makes him tortoiselike on the bench and insipid on the rostrum.
Cousins, of course, begs to differ. He winces at the notion that fear drives him to do anything. “I don’t have any fears,” he says swiftly when this is suggested. “I don’t have any fears. I don’t have any fears.”
He has, for sure, stood tall and brave many times. But fearless? He is more like a knight who volunteers for dangerous crusades, but then sleeps in full armor with a lance under each arm–a Prince of Caution. “I try to keep my guard up,” he allows. “I try to shield myself by virtue of modus operandi. The only way that I feel that people could do me in would be like they did in Sir Thomas More–and that is, just fabricate lies.”
People have two sides, he believes; and there are certainly two sides to William Cousins. There is the liberal humanitarian and the stiff-sentencing judge; William Cousins and the Court; Sir William the Lionhearted and Sir William the Wary. Both sides seem to be toiling constantly to protect Cousins against a potential bum rap. “My guard is kept up to keep them from–keep me from stepping, uh–let’s say from erring, in ways that would leave me vulnerable.”
When Bill Cousins was five, a fire in his home in Swiftown killed the only sibling he ever had–a sister, Beatrice. She was three and a half.
Bill and Beatrice were home alone when the fire broke out. Their father was at work, and their mother, Drusilla, had just left to get water from a pump a few hundred feet away. “I don’t know how it happened so fast,” Drusilla remembers, “but before I got where I was going, I looked back–and she [Beatrice] was standing on the steps, ablaze.” Bill stood next to her, unhurt. Beatrice died that afternoon. The family’s wood-burning stove apparently was the source of the fire, though it was never determined exactly how the blaze got started.
Bill Cousins’s recollection of the fire is faint: he remembers flames, and trying to put them out, and someone in a wagon coming to extinguish them; and Beatrice lying in a bed afterward.
He doesn’t know what impact this tragedy had on his character, if any; he’s never given it much thought. He only heard his parents discuss the fire on one or two occasions. “We moved away, and that was put behind us,” he says.
“I never had any sense of having to compensate for anything on account of the death of my sister,” he says. Yet he allows that after the fire, “I realized that I was an only child, and I felt an obligation to do what I could as an only child to cause my parents to be pleased with me.”
Bill was the kind of child who makes parenting easy, says Drusilla, 79, today a south-side resident. “Whatever rules there was, he followed them. He didn’t ask for a lot of things–he just wanted to do for himself.” He didn’t need or seem to want a lot of attention, she says. He read whatever he could get his hands on as a youngster. He also started working odd jobs from an early age, using his pay to surprise his parents frequently with trinkets. Drusilla still has the Little Red Riding Hood cookie jar that Bill gave her when he was 12.
In Memphis, where the Cousinses moved after the fire, he rode his bike through the streets of the city, heaving the Memphis World, a black newspaper, onto porches, gradually expanding his clientele until he had the biggest route in town. The route gave him a good piece of change, which provided a sense of independence–something he valued even then. “I was always able to do things for myself, even as a boy,” he says. “I do not believe in being dependent. I think that where one is able to, one is better off as the master of one’s own fate.”
His grammar school teachers in Memphis acquainted him with black culture–an emphasis he would not get later in Chicago schools. Cousins recalls being pained, more than most of his peers, by the stereotypes of blacks common then: by textbook depictions of blacks as loafers, by newspapers ridiculing black speech patterns, by the way cartoonists mocked black features, drawing Joe Louis’s lips nearly the size of his face. Other blacks then commonly referred to themselves and their friends as “nigger,” Cousins recalls, “but by the time I left Memphis, I would not use that term.
“I have been sensitive to certain things all my life,” he says. “My view has been since I was a boy that there was a necessity for continued pushing to do away with a great many of the old stereotypes, and that some people had to be involved at the cutting edge of this.”
From the time he was small, he readily accompanied his mother, a devout Baptist, to church each Sunday. He studied the Bible vigorously, and did so well in Sunday school that Drusilla was convinced he was destined to be a preacher. He has been an active church member throughout his life; today he is a deacon of the United Church of Christ. “Religion has played a tremendous role in my life, insofar as the ethics it teaches,” he says. “And I do subscribe to the view that people need to look beyond themselves for strength.”
Neither Drusilla nor William Sr. had much schooling; William Sr., in fact, was illiterate. But they prized an education for their son, and vowed to work and save to see that he got a good one. Drusilla labored as a domestic; William Sr., who died in 1980, toiled in cotton fields in Mississippi, on assembly lines in Memphis, and on the docks and in the stockyards in Chicago.
Bill Jr. was 12 when he and his parents moved to Chicago’s south-side black belt. After graduating from grammar school, he attended DuSable High School, where he earned top grades, ran track, and served as president of his senior class. All of the students in the school were black, but the principal was white; as class president, Cousins asked that a picture of Jean Baptiste Point DuSable (Chicago’s first nonnative settler and a black) be hung in a lounge, but the principal refused. This irked Cousins, but his repeated requests were ignored.
He worked as a delivery boy for a liquor store at age 14 and was robbed at knife point one day. He was coming out of a stairwell near 47th and Cottage Grove when somone grabbed him, put a knife to his throat, and took his money. He was fairly certain that he recognized the voice of one of those who robbed him–there were more than one–but he didn’t get a look at any of them and they got away with the crime. The incident left him shaky, but he doesn’t think it affected his attitude about crime. “Crime abounds and it’s all around, but I don’t feel up in arms about having been a personal victim.”
His independent bent became entrenched in his teens. He noted with distaste how unwilling people were “to do what was unpopular,” and he determined to be different. “I wouldn’t do something just because the majority was doing it,” he says. “I always asked the question, whether or not it was the proper thing to do.”
His seriousness was apparent to friends, showing itself most conspicuously in the way he spoke. “It seemed as though he would weigh and consider every word,” says Edward K. Leak Sr., a cousin and regular companion then.
“He had very definite ideas and was very determined to back them up regardless of the consequences,” Leak says. Leak recalls the day he, Cousins, and another friend, Bill Merrill, were headed to a movie. On the way, the three 14-year-olds ran into a group of five or six older youths–they looked about 19 or 20. The older youths demanded that the younger ones hand over their show fares. Leak and Merrill started reaching into their pockets–but not Cousins. Remembers Leak: “He immediately said, ‘I see no reason why I should do anything of that nature. I don’t see why you fellas have a right to demand something that is rightfully ours.’ We’re standing there somewhat nervous, nudging him and saying, ‘Let’s give the guys the 15 cents and move on.’ But he was determined, and eventually he wore the guys down and they left.
“I said to myself, ‘This is a fellow who really stands for his convictions,'” Leak says. “I was happy to see him make such a noble stand. However, I also said I’d make it a point not to be with him too often under these situations.”
Cousins’s friends sometimes kid him about his honesty on the bench: “What good is it knowing a judge as honest as you?” When you’re in a position in which a favor from a judge would be helpful, Leak says, “You think, ‘Well, who do I know?’ Then you think of Cousins–‘Well, no, I can’t ask him.'”
Cousins was “surprised by the extent to which judges had been compromised” as revealed by the Greylord investigation. “I would have thought certainly if they probed enough they’d be able to get the goods on some people, but I was surprised at the numbers.” Because of Greylord, he says, “we have a cleaner court now than we’ve ever had.”
But not clean enough for him. “Those of us who sit on the bench have to take an attitude that if things don’t look right they aren’t right, and we should do something to change it.” To that end, he has endeavored to fashion a court that is beyond all suspicion.
Unlike most judges, he will not mediate plea-bargaining conferences with attorneys in chambers; he requires the conferences to be held in open court, with the court reporter putting everything on the record. “Perhaps there are very few infractions that occur” in conferences in chambers, he says. “But I venture to say that things are done in those private situations that do compromise some persons.” And it’s foolish, he says, “to have a circumstance which could allow something to go awry when you don’t have to.”
When matters need to be discussed out of earshot of a jury, he’ll step off the bench and meet the attorneys and the court reporter in a corner of the courtroom, rather than go to chambers, as most judges do. “That way, no one will wonder about what we’re doing–not the jury or the defendant or the people sitting out there in the audience.”
He won’t discuss anything about a pending case, won’t answer questions about it no matter how trivial. He often seems “aloof” because of this, says former public defender Stanley Sacks. But Sacks preferred the aloof Cousins to some more personable judges–in whose courtrooms he’d arrive in the morning to find “the state’s attorney sitting back there near the judge’s chambers, just bullshitting with the judge about the cases.”
When Cousins runs in judicial retention elections, he doesn’t organize political committees or raise money. It isn’t necessary for him or for most judges, he says; judges are almost always retained. It only serves to needlessly jeopardize a judge’s integrity, he says. A judge’s campaign donors “often feel that they’re entitled to some deference. Some people want to operate on fiction and say that doesn’t happen, but it’s a fact of life.”
Some attorneys applaud Cousins’s special ground rules; others think they’re extreme.
Dan Locallo, now a traffic court judge, was assigned to Cousins’s courtroom as a prosecutor for 18 months in the early 80s. He was so impressed with Cousins’s practice of conducting all business in open court that he has adopted that policy in his own courtroom.
But other attorneys say Cousins’s rules make getting to the heart of the matter a more arduous process. His requirement that plea-bargaining sessions be conducted only on the record, they maintain, restricts the candor vital to those conferences. “There may be some good reason why a defendant deserves less time,” one defense attorney says, “but it might be something you wouldn’t want to say on the record standing next to him–like, ‘Judge, he’s more of a goof than a criminal.'”
Cousins: “If it shouldn’t be said in open court, it shouldn’t be said.”
In his 10 years in the City Council and 12 years on the bench, Cousins says, there have been people who have approached him for favors. “Of course people will try you out. But after so much people stop trying. People don’t generally even hint too much anymore so far as I’m concerned. ‘Cause I’ll take offense to it. Maybe this doesn’t mean that I would turn ’em in, but it certainly would be an uncomfortable situation.” He laughs.
He recalls the morning an acquaintance dropped by his chambers and mentioned a case on Cousins’s call. “There’s a defendant who’s charged in a case here, and he has an extraordinarily high bond,” the man said. “I know you’ll do what’s right.” “Oh, sure, I’ll do what’s right,” Cousins told him. When the defendant’s case was called, Cousins recused himself from it and noted for the record the acquaintance’s visit.
He realized early on in his career as a public official the danger inherent in shady dealings. “My view was that if you ever took money from one person, you’d have to do it with somebody else, and if you didn’t, you might be in trouble,” he says. “That’s a circumstance as a practical matter that one should avoid–aside from the immorality and the dishonesty of it.”
Bribes never tempted him because “money is not a motivating force in my life.” He is contented by simple pleasures. For 23 years he has lived in the same modestly affluent blond-brick home in Avalon Park, a middle-class south-side neighborhood. He lives there with his wife, Hiroko, and three of their children: Cheryl, 33, a probation officer; Yul, 30, an insurance agent; and Gail, 20, a sophomore at the University of Illinois at Chicago. (His fourth child, 32-year-old Noel, is a schizophrenic, and has been institutionalized since he was a teenager.) The small fish pond that Bill and Hiroko had constructed alongside their house is about as luxurious as their tastes run.
It’s not always money that seduces public officials into abusing their influence, Cousins says. “People just like to do favors for other people. But the best satisfaction a person can get is doing a job the best he can, without compromising.”
What gives him the most satisfaction on the bench, he says, is the sense that he is providing a fair trial, that he is “being evenhanded and nondiscriminatory and impartial.”
Cousins has one racial policy: he does not allow all-white juries in his courtroom. Black defendants tried in front of white juries “feel that they have the deck stacked against them,” he says. The prosecutors assigned to him are aware of his sentiment, and so rarely attempt to pick such juries. “If it appears they are proceeding in that direction,” he says, “I will step off the bench and tell them I think something’s wrong with it.”
Other than that, attorneys who have appeared before him say, Cousins seems truly color-blind in court. Former prosecutor Telander, who is white, recalled the time Cousins rose to his defense when Telander excluded a black juror over the raucous protests of a black defense attorney. “The defense lawyer went crazy–he was insinuating that I excluded the juror because he was black,” Telander says. “And Judge Cousins put it on the record–‘The court will note that Mr. Telander is white and that the juror was black, but the court will also say for the record that this juror had sunglasses on, and the court notes that it ain’t sunny in courtroom 604 [his court at the time].'”
Cousins describes his demeanor from the bench as “firm, but even. I’m not inclined to scream and yell. I’m not inclined to get involved in dialogue with counsel. I believe the judge is the judge, and there are rules, and that’s the end of it.”
What makes him hot? “A personal attack,” he says. “I have a problem with anyone accusing me of doing something on the bench that would affect my ability to fairly judge a case.”
Such an attack occurred last September during the sentencing hearing of Jerome Murray, 20, who had been convicted of murder. Before Cousins issued the sentence, Murray claimed that Cousins had visited the courtroom lockup one day, warning the defendants there to “recognize and acknowledge” their errors and to pray to God for a “miracle.”
“I don’t talk to defendants, period,” Cousins responded sharply from the bench. He called the charge a “Paul Bunyanesque lie,” and gave Murray 30 years.
When Cousins goes on the bench for a sentencing, he has in mind the sentence he expects to impose. What a defendant says “may modify or enhance” the sentence slightly, he says. Murray’s case was one where the sentence was “enhanced.” His accusations “aggravated the criminality of his makeup,” Cousins says.
(From the Stateville Correctional Center, where Murray is serving his sentence, Murray told me in July that he had never really heard Cousins preach in the lockup. Murray says another County jail inmate had told him that Cousins had done this once. Murray made the accusation in court, he said, because he was upset with the judge finding him guilty when he was really innocent.)
In another incident, nine years ago, Cousins was accused of making prejudicial comments on a pending case. Two people were being tried separately before Cousins for the same murder, and Cousins acquitted the first. A law clerk for the firm of Jenner & Block watched the first trial; he claimed that after the acquittal, and after the court reporter had left, one of the prosecutors approached Cousins and asked him why the state had lost its case. According to the clerk, Cousins told the prosecutor the state had plenty of evidence in the second case, but had not had enough in the first.
The defense attorney handling the second case, Robert Byman, had the clerk restate what he said he heard in a sworn affidavit. Byman presented the affidavit to Cousins in his chambers, along with a motion asking that the judge recuse himself from the case on the grounds that he had already predisposed himself to a guilty finding. Cousins responded by bolting into his courtroom, summoning the clerk before the bench, lambasting him for filing a false affidavit, and instituting a contempt charge.
Cousins subsequently vacated the contempt charge–after a Jenner & Block partner apologized to him for the clerk’s charge, Cousins says. He did not recuse himself from the murder case in question, but he presided fairly, Byman says. The case was ultimately dismissed.
“I think he [Cousins] honestly believed the conversation hadn’t occurred, just as our [clerk] believed it had occurred,” Byman says. “There was a difference in recollection. But his reaction was nuclear warfare, rather than just saying, ‘Hey, it didn’t happen.'”
Cousins says he thinks the clerk “was trying to impress somebody, and sought to do it in the wrong way.” He reacted as strongly as he did, he says, because he wanted to point out “the lack of scruples and principles” of someone who “would fabricate something like that.” If he had simply agreed to recuse himself, the incident would have been “something that somebody could point to as indicating that I had been less than competent in functioning as a judge.”
Cousins says he has good reason to react strongly to such accusations. When he first became a judge, some attorneys went out of their way to make life hard for him, he says. Lawyers often try to cow new judges, like veteran ball players try to intimidate new umpires. But he thinks he was hazed with special vigor because he was not just new but black.
(Cousins’s welcome to 26th Street was indeed particularly mean spirited, says a former prosecutor who worked in Cousins’s courtroom in his first year on the bench. “He took a lot of grief–people were making fun of him.” This was partly because Cousins had an unimpressive reputation as a trial attorney, but also because of “all the racism at 26th Street.”)
Attorneys “come from a background where they have been brilliant, and they feel that they have all the answers,” Cousins says. They don’t take kindly to a rookie judge who tells them differently, he says–particularly one with dark skin. “So people challenged me. And they got knocked down, just as simple as that. Because I do have an authoritarian side, you see. I’m not challenged very much anymore.”
Cousins says his obsession with fairness is simply part of his nature. “It’s just always been so. As a child, I had a sense of dos and don’ts, and I’ve had that all the time.” He might also have been influenced, he allows, by “some of my observations, even as a youngster, and certainly as I became older, about the havoc that’s wrought by unfairness”–unfairness that, in his experience, has often been linked to race.
Aided by a General Assembly scholarship, Cousins attended the University of Illinois at Champaign from 1945 through ’48, majoring in political science. He excelled both academically and as a cadet in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. He starred on the school’s debate team, never losing a debate so far as he recalls.
He also managed his fraternity’s intramural sports teams. Only an average athlete, he was known for treating routine games like world championships–“the professional amateur,” his frat mates called him.
Fewer than 200 of the university’s 10,000 students were black, but Cousins says this wasn’t a problem for him. Off campus, blacks were discriminated against routinely: movie theaters in Champaign required them to sit in the balcony, restaurants would only serve them carryout. Cousins participated in unsuccessful student sit-ins at a hamburger joint near his fraternity house, but for the most part he stuck to campus, where discrimination wasn’t as rampant. Membership in a black fraternity–Kappa Alpha Psi–also provided support.
It was in his freshman year that Cousins came to his views on the duality of human nature. A philosophy instructor asked him to write a paper on prejudice. Cousins spent the semester reading omnivorously on the subject. He learned that “people are capable of some godawful wrongs, and will do them unless encouraged to show their better side.”
For his bachelor’s degree in political science, he wrote a thesis on stare decisis et non quieta movere–Latin for “to adhere to precedent and not disturb settled principles.” He concluded that adhering to precedent was essential for a stable system of justice in a society, even though it meant that societal injustices would only be corrected “with provoking slowness.” Precedent need not be abandoned to make society more fair, he wrote; instead, “the quality of our judges should be improved.” Nearly three decades before he would become one, Cousins wrote, “While judges are men, they must of necessity be more than ordinary men.”
He applied to the law schools at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Michigan, and was accepted at each. He enrolled at Harvard, his first choice, in 1948.
He arrived in Cambridge with a footlocker and a list of apartments whose owners rented to students. (There was no on-campus housing for law school underclassmen.) Lugging the footlocker around Cambridge to many of the apartments, he soon realized that no one on the list was prepared to rent to a black student. The experience surprised him. And angered him? “Oh, I don’t know if you call it that. So much of that happened that unless there was a certain jeopardy involved, you just sort of rolled with it. But it’s something that sticks with you–so you might call it anger.” He eventually found a room with a black family.
Of the 500 students in his class, five were black. He didn’t associate much with the other blacks; when dormitory housing became available, he roomed with whites; he played squash with whites; he “virtually completely assimilated into the white law student milieu.” He has “never had a problem assimilating,” he says; yet he has “always retained [his] black identity.”
He studied his eyes bleary in law school, frequently burying himself in the stacks of the library. A black-and-white sketch hanging on a wall of his chambers reminds him of those days; it shows a man on a stepladder in front of a library bookshelf, reading one book and holding another in his other hand and one under his arm. Sleep was almost impossible for him during exam periods–he couldn’t turn his mind off from his studies. (Sleep continues to be a problem for him today.) Law school demanded all of his “intellectual strength and stamina,” he says–and he loved it. He still wears his law school ring proudly. If he were to lose it, “what I would pay to get it back I just cannot say.”
He graduated on June 20, 1951, and entered the service the same day. He trained as an infantry officer in the States and then in Japan, where he met Hiroko Ogawa, whom he married in 1953.
What he remembers most vividly about his service in Korea is not the combat but his battles with his own superiors. Cousins watched as other young black officers were routinely removed from their assignments to block their promotions. Cousins complained; then he was removed from his assignment. He had been commanding an 81-millimeter mortar platoon; he was put in charge of the kitchen. “It was really a blow to my ego,” he says. “I’m a person who’s in control of myself, but I must say, in one conversation with the company commander [who reassigned him], but for the will of God I might have been involved in a court-martial because, you see, I might have struck him.”
Cousins sent a letter to the regional commander, charging the battalion and company commanders with “systematically shafting young black officers,” he says. The regional commander was sympathetic; Cousins soon was transferred and promoted, and the battalion and company commanders were relieved of their commands. But Cousins still has a sour taste in his mouth from the whole episode. “It taught me another lesson about the venality of people. You’d think in certain circumstances people would let things be and stop giving vent to their biases. But they don’t.”
Cousins distinguished himself during his service–he earned one commendation as a “Most Outstanding Officer.” But he wasn’t always treated with respect by his white peers, some of whom openly displayed their contempt for his dating a Japanese woman.
His difficulties with the military did not end with Korea. He remained active in the reserves for many years, handling legal matters as a staff judge advocate. But a promotion he sought in the 70s, from major to lieutenant colonel, was blocked because of a critique of him written by a general: “This officer has native intelligence, but he has permitted himself to be duped by the so-called new left, which makes his use to the military questionable.”
Cousins eventually got the critique pulled from his records and obtained his promotion. He believes the general’s action was racially motivated, in part, but mostly political; the critique was written when Cousins was an alderman, regularly denouncing not only the Daley Machine but the Vietnam war. The general “probably had been contacted and told that something had to be done about me,” Cousins says.
“It was another very bitter experience,” he says, “which showed me the extent to which some people will go to do things against you. It didn’t work, though, because again, I happen to be like a cat sometimes with nine lives. I have a way of plodding and scratching away so that I don’t get buried even when the avalanche is supposed to bury me.”
“Court personnel would like to hang him,” criminal division presiding judge Richard Fitzgerald says of Cousins.
He’s referring, of course, to the hours the judge keeps–hours that, Fitzgerald says, aren’t appreciated by jurors either. “If they don’t get out of there till eight or nine o’clock, and it’s dark, they become apprehensive.” But the long hours Cousins puts in only show “how very dedicated a judge Bill is,” Fitzgerald says.
According to Cousins, it’s not true that court personnel are unhappy with the long day they have to work in his courtroom. His deputies–Leo Johnston and Al Love–have been with him for years, he says, never requesting reassignment. Docket clerks like the overtime, he says, and while court reporters are paid by the sheet, they fill a lot more sheets in his courtroom and thus earn more. One court reporter assigned to him a few years ago “was making more money than the judges,” Cousins says. “Other court reporters were envious of him.” (The court reporters I spoke with, though, said reporters assigned to Cousins are looked on with pity, not envy.) As for jurors, Cousins says he occasionally polls them, asking whether they’d rather quit early and work more days or stay later and finish a trial sooner. Invariably, he says, they opt to stay later.
Some attorneys, Cousins allows, aren’t thrilled by his schedule. But “the court is there to be used,” he says.
And use it he does. When a lengthy trial goes to the jury late in an afternoon, the attorneys typically head to a restaurant for a drink or dinner, where they’ll await the verdict. Attorneys assigned to Cousins don’t always enjoy such a luxury. “Bring up 40,” he’ll say, meaning 40 potential jurors; immediately the attorneys will have to start jury selection for the next case.
He grants continuances grudgingly, former prosecutor Telander says. Telander recalls the time he and another prosecutor finished a jury trial before Cousins late one night–the second of two difficult trials they had had that week in the courtroom. They won this second trial, and so went out and celebrated. Next morning, Telander says, they came in “a little under the weather” and quarreling about who had to go to court “because we knew judge Cousins would be rarin’ to go for another one.
“There was a case on the call set for trial,” Telander says. “And the defense lawyer stepped up sick–he was coughing, his nose was actually bleeding, he was holding a handkerchief over his nose in front of the bench. And he [Cousins] turned to me, and he goes, ‘Is the state ready for trial?’ I was afraid to say no. I did not want to incur his wrath by not being ready. So I said yes. So he turned to this defense lawyer and he said, ‘You’re on the griddle, counsel.’ The guy begged and pleaded to get out of it, but Cousins said, ‘Nope. Bring up 40.’ Sure enough, we had another jury trial that day.”
Attorneys assigned to his courtroom, Cousins says, “have to carry a heavy load, and have to learn how to think on their feet and how to move from one thing to another without delay. This tends to develop stronger advocates.”
“This is considered a prime assignment in our office because of all the trial experience you get,” says assistant state’s attorney Nick Geanopoulos, one of the prosecutors currently assigned to Cousins. Most of the attorneys I spoke with who had been assigned to Cousins–prosecutors and public defenders alike–felt similarly.
But the pace in the courtroom irks many attorneys even if the hours don’t.
Cousins disposed of 527 cases last year, ranking him seventh among the 30 judges at 26th Street. His disposition rate perennially ranks him among the top ten judges, usually the top five. But considering the hours he puts in, his disposition rate is “not that great,” presiding judge Fitzgerald says.
Like other judges, Cousins doesn’t generally begin trials until after he has gone through his “morning call.” During morning calls, judges typically move quickly through a slew of cases in pre- and posttrial stages, making rulings on motions, hearing status reports, issuing sentences, setting new court dates. When the morning call is disposed of, judges begin their trials. But the judge from Swiftown often doesn’t get through his morning call until mid-afternoon. Meantime, attorneys just sit and wait. In Cousins’s courtroom, “I get worn out waiting for the trial to start,” a defense attorney says.
Business drags in Cousins’s courtroom primarily because of the protracted rulings he makes. He “doesn’t answer many things straight out, just yes or no,” former public defender Stanley Sacks says. “He’s got an explanation for everything.”
You can see the wheels spinning when he’s called upon to rule: his eyebrows arch, his eyes dart, and the words escape unwillingly–but syntactically. The child who smarted from the scorn aimed at black dialect has grown up to speak flawless if also lusterless English, precisely enunciated. (And not just on the bench; Cousins isn’t pretentious but he sure can sound that way, friends say. “I don’t need to hear that eastern accent,” Dr. Herbert Almo, a south-side optometrist and former high school classmate, sometimes tells him. “You think you’re still out at Harvard.”)
Cousins acknowledges taking “a great deal of time” in making his rulings. The benefit of so doing, he says, is shown in his rate of affirmance by higher courts: over the last six years, 90 percent of his cases that have been reviewed have been affirmed–a rate he says compares favorably with that of other judges (though no court agency compiles such rates for all judges). He’d rather get it right the first time, he says, even if it does take longer.
But, one defense attorney says, Cousins is “paralyzed” by his fear of erring on the record. “A lot of statements he makes are so carefully couched that they become meaningless–they don’t provide any guidance or any help to the lawyers.” The result of Cousins’s “intellectual cowardice,” this attorney says, is “things take twice as long in his courtroom.”
Cousins “is ambitious, and wants to go far,” defense attorney Duke McNeil believes, “and so he doesn’t want things popping up that could embarrass him.”
Most prosecutors and former prosecutors I spoke with lauded Cousins’s fussiness with the record–it makes it more likely their convictions will hold up, they say.
“Some attorneys think the race is to the swift,” former prosecutor Daniel Locallo says, defending the judge’s deliberateness. “But these are important cases he’s hearing–people’s freedom is at stake.”
No one could ever accuse Cousins of trying to rush them out of his courtroom. Cousins believes all parties should be able to say as much as they want about their case, within the procedural limits. That way, litigants are less likely to leave bitter “even if they disagree with what’s done,” he says.
“You have attorneys who are long-winded, and they don’t know when to quit,” chief deputy Johnston says, “and the only thing he does wrong is he won’t stop ’em, like some judges–‘That’s enough, now sit down.’ He’ll tell ’em, ‘Go as long as you like, but we have a certain amount of work to finish, and we’re going to finish it if it takes all night.'”
Cousins is a patient listener off the bench, too. “He can listen to the devil and give him his due,” Dr. Almo says. Cousins, Almo, and some of their other high school classmates still get together every few months; at the last meeting, one friend was talking to Cousins “about something so silly, it was just wasting his time,” Almo says. “And Bill sat there so patiently, and the person felt vindicated because he had taken the time just to listen to him.”
Cousins is trying to decrease the number of long days he spends in court, he says. He knows some people are critical of his regimen “and I want to resolve that criticism.” His goal is to adjourn court by 6 PM at the latest, except when juries are deliberating.
When he’s not in court, he’s often speaking to some civic group or attending a meeting–he is chair of the Illinois Judicial Council, an organization comprised primarily of black judges, and is a member of several other judicial or bar association committees. On weekends, there are chores to tend to at home, and family and church matters. He reads, when he gets the chance, or watches TV. He has time for little else. He used to run regularly, but that fell by the wayside as his age neared 60. Upon arising each morning, he does a few minutes of Army calisthenics.
Is he a workaholic? “If a workaholic is defined as a person who gets satisfaction out of work, I suppose some may consider me that,” he says. “I figure it’s a waste when you’re not doing anything.”
He works the way he does at least in part because of his race. “I certainly feel that blacks, more often than not, have to do more. And if they don’t do more, they will find themselves vanquished. Vanquished. They will find themselves to be denied the opportunity to advance, or at times even to retain what they have. My work gives me protection from some of the efforts that are made at times to move on certain people. This is my extra survival technique.”
When he returned from the service in June 1953, Cousins immediately holed up in his parents’ house on the south side and studied for the Illinois bar exam–which he passed that August.
He got a job with Chicago Title & Trust handling real estate matters. He wasn’t especially interested in real estate; but law firms weren’t hiring many black attorneys, and even a black attorney from Harvard couldn’t be choosy.
It wasn’t long before he became politically active. “People who have principles should be in politics,” he says. His involvement with the Young Republicans helped get him a job in 1957 with the state’s attorney’s office, headed by Republican Benjamin Adamowski. He was assigned to civil condemnation practice: he negotiated with interested parties when property had to be acquired by governmental bodies. “It was not one of the greatest periods in my development, legally or otherwise.” He lost his job when a Democrat was elected state’s attorney in 1960.
He entered private practice with a small black law firm. He did a variety of legal work, only a minority of it criminal defense. In 1962 he made his first and only unsuccessful bid for elective office, running as a Republican for state representative. With Barry Goldwater gaining control of the party nationally in 1963, Cousins switched to the Democrats.
He participated in various civil rights demonstrations and became a community leader–he was president of the Chatham-Avalon Council from 1962 through 1965. And then, in 1967, he ran for alderman of the Eighth Ward and beat a Daley Democrat in a runoff.
His victory, and his subsequent political success, surprised many of his friends. “I’m glad he didn’t take my advice, because I would have told him he could never make it,” says Bill Merrill, 60, a commercial artist and a friend of Cousins’s for nearly a half century. Merrill felt Cousins was “too honest and too intelligent” for politics. And too uncharismatic: “Bill could almost put you to sleep giving a speech sometimes,” Merrill says. Merrill attributes Cousins’s success to “how dedicated and concerned he was.”
“He isn’t the best speaker, but his basic self always broke through,” Edward Leak says. “He would win people over with his honesty and conviction.”
Cousins was “simply outstanding” as an alderman, says fellow independent Leon Despres, the former longtime Hyde Park alderman who served in the council with Cousins. “He was thoughtful, trustworthy, dependable, and genuinely concerned about the problems of his constituents and of the city.
“He was a little long-winded,” Despres, says. “But he spoke with an eloquence that came from an inner rectitude.”
He teamed with Despres and the council’s few other independents to regularly blast discrimination by the city in hiring and in the allocation of services. But he avoided “bitter personal” fights, deeming them “beneath the dignity of men,” Cousins says, and thus managed to retain the respect of political opponents. One of those, former Tenth Ward alderman Edward Vrdolyak, has only sweet praise for Cousins today: “He’s a quality guy, a real guy. He was a fair-minded, diligent alderman.” Unlike some of the other independents, Vrdolyak says, Cousins “wasn’t there for gamesmanship and he wasn’t there for headlines. He took the positions that he thought were right.”
(Was he long-winded? “I don’t think so,” Vrdolyak says. “He wasn’t like Leon Despres.”)
One difficulty Cousins has with a politician’s function is that it often requires negotiation and compromise; and Cousins by nature “is not inclined to negotiate,” he says. So the role of maverick alderman in the Chicago City Council of the 60s and 70s fit him perfectly: he didn’t have to negotiate with other aldermen to pass ordinances–an anti-Daley alderman wasn’t going to pass anything anyway. In his ten years, the only Cousins-sponsored, citywide ordinance approved by the council was the one establishing Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a city holiday. Cousins was content to be “a conscience” in the council, he says, along with the other independents.
His greater accomplishment was outside the council, he says: “establishing a more independent climate in the black community.”
Cousins’s three triumphant campaigns against the Machine “aroused the rising black middle class to the fact that change was possible,” says John Kearney, who was executive director of the Independent Voters of Illinois (IVI) from 1965 through 1969. “They encouraged people who had dropped out politically to participate again, to have some hope.” Without some early victories like those, “you couldn’t have later elected a Harold Washington,” Kearney says.
Politicians who discussed the prospects of a black mayor in Chicago then usually listed Cousins among the possibilities. Being mayor was, indeed, his first ambition. But he knew no one could beat Daley, and when Hizzoner won reelection in a 1975 landslide, it looked as if he might be mayor forever. Later that year, the legislature created 30 new Cook County judgeships–including 10 to be elected from Chicago. So Cousins decided to pursue his second ambition.
Luck was on his side: his name was chosen in a lottery to be first on the ballot among the judicial candidates in the 1976 Democratic primary.
Vrdolyak was on his side, too, endorsing Cousins even though the Daley Machine did not. Few black committeemen “risked as much open support of me as Ed Vrdolyak gave,” Cousins says. Without Vrdolyak’s help, in fact, Cousins may never have become a judge; Cousins “was crucified” in the white northwest- and southwest-side wards , he says, but did well enough in Vrdolyak’s ward to finish ninth among the 16 candidates on the ballot. (Finishing in the top ten in the Democratic primary was tantamount to winning one of the ten judgeships; he ran unopposed in the general election.)
Cousins’s send-off from the council was most genial. A resolution offered by Daley, and adopted unanimously, saluted the alderman for the “great honor and distinction” with which he had served. Cousins, in kind, called Daley “the best administrator I’ve ever had a chance to know.” Vrdolyak voiced his “mixed emotions” about Cousins’s departure. “It’s like watching your mother-in-law go over a cliff in your new car.”
He became a judge in December 1976, and was immediately assigned to 26th Street. Except for a brief stint in the Daley Center hearing personal in jury cases–from January 1983 through June 1984–26th Street is where he has been. He prefers criminal to civil court. “Some people can get excited–exceedingly so–about money. But you can’t get as excited about money as about determining matters related to the liberty or incarceration of people.”
(He requested the transfer to civil court to get some exposure to it. This was prompted by his dismay at being rated only “qualified” and not “highly qualified” by the Chicago Bar Association when he was up for retention in 1982. He felt the bar association had downgraded him for not having broader experience, and so, the day after he was informed of his rating, he asked chief circuit court judge Harry Comerford for the transfer. The “qualified” rating “shook me,” he says. “If you feel you’ve done A work, you’re not satisifed with a C. I am not a person who has functioned in a mediocre range.” He felt the interview had been conducted unfairly; he thinks minority candidates frequently are treated unfairly by the predominantly white panels that do the interviewing for bar association judicial ratings. He complained about it, and participated on a subcommittee this year that studied the evaluation process. He is up for retention in November, and so was interviewed again by the bar association in June. This time, it ranked him “highly qualified.”)
He can’t improve society as much in his role as a judge as he could “in certain other governmental positions, particularly mayor,” he says. “But I do think I have my greatest potential as a judge.”
Had he run for mayor, he’s confident he would have won. “I’m not a Jesse Jackson, I’m not a Harold Washington–no, I don’t have their charisma,” he says. “But I have other strengths.”
His scrupulousness is one such strength, says former IVI director Kearney. You wouldn’t have to worry about Cousins ever forgetting to file his income tax, Kearney says.
But Kearney thinks Cousins would not have been a dynamic enough candidate to get elected mayor. “I think he found his spot as a judge.” Despres agrees. “He has a sense of purpose and he is governed by principles–in that, way he’s like Washington. But he doesn’t have the ebullience of personality that Washington had, and that you need to be elected mayor. He was made to be a judge. And he was not made to be mayor.”
In 1990, “I will be involved in bringing about the election of the first black supreme court justice in this state,” Cousins says.
A vacancy on the supreme court was filled in April when the high court justices picked appellate judge John Stamos to complete the term of Seymour Simon, who retired in February. Black leaders objected to the appointment of Stamos. “Even the state of Mississippi has a black on its supreme court,” Chicago NAACP President Reverend B. Herbert Martin said. “When will Illinois catch up?”
The term Stamos is serving ends in 1990. At that time, he may run for another term. It’s very likely that at least one prominent black will run as well. Cousins is a good bet.
He emphasizes that he has not yet decided whether to run. It depends in part on the other potential black candidates, he says. The election will be countywide, and a black cannot win if more than one runs. Cousins vows to exert his influence to ensure that only one black runs. “If I’m alive, there will be only one [black] candidate.”
Other blacks who may be interested are Illinois appellate court justices R. Eugene Pincham and man and criminal court judge Earl Strayhorn.
A black candidate would undoubtedly pull the preponderance of black votes. Cousins, though, thinks that he, more than the others, could win many white votes as well, because he “doesn’t constitute a threat” to whites.
He certainly is less threatening than Pincham, the most prominent of the possible candidates. When Pincham was a criminal court judge, he wasn’t noted for sending ’em away as Cousins is. Nor would you catch Cousins talking about people deserving to get hung if they didn’t vote for Harold Washington; Pincham is still in hot water with a judicial inquiry board for that remark, made at an Operation PUSH meeting during the mayoral campaign of 1987. “My own view is that judges should not be involved in partisan politics,” Cousins says. “A mayor’s race takes place, my own view is that the judge should stay home.”
Cousins is a person who is “just gonna play it by the rules,” his deputy Leo Johnston says. He might even give the death penalty if a case called for it, though he won’t say for sure. (He hasn’t gotten such a case since the state supreme court overruled him in 1979; some court observers believe such cases have been steered away from him.) “Even though I may wish that the [death penalty] law were different, that’s the law,” Cousins says. “And when I have to decide certain cases, I will decide them according to the law.”
The framed photos on the walls of his chambers show Cousins in contrasting racial settings. There is Cousins with Jesse Jackson and Roots author Alex Haley in the yard behind PUSH headquarters; there is Cousins with Mayor Washington. And there is Cousins at the 25th reunion of his Harvard Law School graduating class–one of two blacks in a sea of 186 white faces. And Cousins with a dozen prosecutors–all but one of them white–at the birthday dinner they throw him every year.
When he heads from his chambers to the bench each morning, he can see a contrast there too: the modestly dressed, careworn black and Hispanic defendants and relatives sitting in the back of the courtroom, and the suited attorneys, with their shiny black shoes and smooth white faces, waiting nonchalantly in front.
Black lawyers and judges “flow back and forth between two cultures,” says Cornelius Toole, a black defense attorney who has appeared before Cousins on numerous occasions.
And they often struggle with the ambivalence they feel about their roles, Toole says. On the one hand, they “overwhelmingly believe in the American legal system. They know that blacks have always had to turn to it for help in this society.” Yet they also know “that it’s a white man’s system,” Toole says. “It was adopted and developed to protect those in power here. So if you go along with it you can survive–but you’re going to have all kinds of significant emotional reservations.
“There’s some who consider [Cousins] an Uncle Tom because he’s so harsh,” Toole says, “and that he’s therefore endorsing the traditional view of the white man, and that’s to put these guys in jail. But I think he takes the position that it’s the undisputed right of the sovereign to protect itself from crime. They’re doing the same thing in Nigeria, Sierra Leone–they’re putting black people in jail.”
When you boil it down, that’s what Cousins’s job largely consists of: putting a multitude of people behind bars, most of them young black males. Because of the legislature’s stiffening of criminal statutes, he and other judges are putting them away at increased rates each year. In Cousins’s first year on the bench, he disposed of 200 cases; he’ll dispose of well over 500 this year. (A much greater proportion of his cases now involve possession of small amounts of controlled substances, or of stolen vehicles–cases that are often disposed of with plea bargaining or short trials–so his work load has not increased even though the number of dispositions has.) The vast majority of those dispositions are guilty pleas or guilty findings, often resulting in prison sentences. The population of Illinois’ prisons has almost doubled since Cousins came on the bench, from 12,000 to more than 20,000; he wouldn’t be surprised if it doubles again by the end of the century.
Cousins laments the growing dependency on incarceration as the cure for crime. “They are building new prisons, but not fast enough–they fill almost before they complete them. Obviously, we’re fighting a losing battle.” He decries the politicians who are “bamboozling” voters with “demagoguery about get-tough approaches that they know don’t work.” The remedy for crime isn’t harsher laws and more prisons, he says, but “more resources for ghetto families, for education.”
Then how can he continue to play his role in this losing battle? “Because I am a judge, and the law must be followed,” he says.
But why be a judge? Because, Cousins says, there are few jobs more vital to society. “The test of a society, it has been said by persons who were more wise than persons such as myself, is determined by the quality of justice that exists in the judiciary.”
Some might say the quality of justice in the judiciary is practically irrelevant, I suggested to Cousins once; that the preponderance of society’s injustices occur long before another black kid arrives at 26th Street. “The greatest of evils and the worst of crimes is poverty,” George Bernard Shaw once wrote. The vast majority of defendants who appear before Cousins are poor, and were born that way. But Cousins shrugged this off. “It’s a lack of effort. People can be poor and not commit crimes. Indeed, most poor people don’t commit crimes.”
He told a story he heard once about a boy in a hotel lobby. The boy stared longingly at some object on a counter, Cousins said, then reached up and grabbed it. “Then a quizzical expression came over his face, and he put the object back and left. Something had gotten hold of him, and he didn’t follow through and do what he had thought of doing. That probably indicates some sense of values he had received.
“Every person has temptations,” he said. “Every person sees things they want to have, things they want to do. But you have to have willpower to stop short of doing those things.”
Easy for him to say, I responded; he didn’t have abusive and neglectful parents, as did so many of the defendants who come before him. “Many people do live under unjust conditions,” he allowed. “But that’s no justification for being unjust.”
Blacks who criticize him for being tough on offenders forget that these offenders’ victims are usually black, too, he says. “The attitude of the black community is not to be soft on criminals, but that those who are accused of crimes be dealt with fairly, and that vengeance not be a primary consideration.”
The contribution black judges can make is not leniency but something more subtle, he says: they can build respect in minority communities for the legal system. Minorities are often “hostile and cynical” about the courts, he says, largely because the courts are so dominated by whites. “We would not have the extent of crime that we do if the citizenry were more supportive of those who are in charge of the law. People would be inclined to help solve [crimes] rather than remain uninvolved or at times to try to shield [criminals]. When people feel they are being dealt with fairly, you have a better circumstance in the inner city.
“These are intangibles that are overlooked but in the long run have tremendous impact,” he says. “You don’t make changes in things overnight. You have to have goals, and a constant course of action, and in time–time in terms of tens of years–substantial changes for the better can take place.”
He distrusts more radical change. “Some things perhaps should be changed drastically, because they’re so wrong. Slavery was an example. But as a practical matter, it is unusual to have vast leaps at a time. The progress that’s been made in this country has been in large part through the courts–although the courts are slow. I believe that what is predicated on fair play and on what is right will prevail in the long run.
“No, I never give up, no. I know if you keep enough pressure on something, you bore ahead. No, I don’t have much despair. I have concerns and dissatisfactions, yes, but not despair. Because I know what the ball game is–I’ve always realized that. And I dont expect miracles. I believe for every pound of effort, you’re lucky if you get an ounce of results. But by continuing to hammer away, eventually you will accumulate a pound.”
In September 1982, Cousins sentenced Mark Clements, a 17-year-old black, to life in prison without parole.
A jury had found Clements guilty of four counts of murder and one of aggravated arson. He had been accused of setting an apartment fire that killed four people.
In giving him natural life, Cousins was only following the law: a statute required that sentence for multiple murders.
The intriguing thing was the statement Clements made before being sentenced. Cousins asked him if he had anything to say; Clements said he’d like to speak for “a few minutes.” Referring to ten pages of handwritten notes, he proceeded to talk for one hour and 55 minutes.
The recently convicted usually say little or nothing before they’re sentenced. Clements’s lawyer, Robert Cooney Jr., says this was the longest such speech he’d ever heard, “by about an hour and 54 minutes.”
In his rambling yet poignantly articulate statement, Clements, who was diagnosed as having a mental age of nine and a half, repeatedly maintained his innocence. He also begged for mercy, stressing his rugged childhood. Because his parents had “big problems between themselves,” he was raised by an aunt. The aunt was poor and sick, he told Cousins, and so he had to go to work at an early age to help support the household. He had worked as a newsboy from age seven until his arrest, he said. “I was ten years old delivering 125 papers, dragging them, wintertime, and my feet got frostbitten, delivering papers to people like your house, every morning . . .” He told how he and his aunt attended church regularly, and how he read the Bible. He told of having to move into the Robert Taylor Homes, where he saw a “ten-month-year-old baby get her head blown off.
“I have did things wrong in my life,” Clements said. “I have did burglaries. I have did robberies. . . . But that don’t mean that I can’t be somebody. I can be just like you. It might take me a little time, but . . . you can be coming in front of me, Mr. Mark Clements–Judge Mark Clements . . .
“Mr. Cousins, can you tell me how jail is?” Clements continued. “You drive past that place every day and you convict people every day, but you never understand where this person go and where he have to spend his life. . . . Jail is not a joke. It is bad dreams every night and fighting in your sleep every night. . . . You never miss a night fighting in your sleep, not one night at all . . .”
Clements spoke of racism in society and in the judicial system. “I am not saying every black man get convicted and every white man get let loose . . . but it seems that way. Look in the County Jail–two honkies on every tier. . . . When you finally do get somebody in here white, he goes home. The black man stays. He got to go down there and fight another black man . . .”
Attorney Cooney doubts that another judge would have let Clements go on so long. “Other judges may have found a polite way to cut him off–or a not-so-polite way. When a guy is thinking about his next thought, you say, ‘OK now, that being said–‘ But he didn’t. He just sat there and listened.”
“You can tell me to shut up, you see?” Clements said at one point.
“The court won’t tell you when to shut up,” Cousins responded.
Clements: “Well, but that’s what I’m saying, you know? You are the man, and I’m not. You know it, Mr. Cousins, and you have to face it. . . . You got the power over me, over my whole life. . . . Listen, Judge, I’m 17 years old. Now, please save me some time in my life, please . . .”
Clements also wouldn’t have spoken so long had Cousins seemed uninterested or impatient, Cooney says. “If you get the sense that the guy’s ready to pull the rug out from under you, you’re not inclined to go on. I think he got the impression that the judge was listening to everything. And he did–he sat there and looked him in the eye and listened to everything he said. And then gave him natural life.”
“It was important for him to have an opportunity to be heard,” Cousins says simply.
Clements’s extraordinary address didn’t stir Cousins in any memorable way, the judge says; he remembers little about it today. On two or three other occasions, he says, defendants in his courtroom have spoken as long before sentencing as Clements did.
“The defendant is two persons–there are two, Mark Clementses,” Cousins began after Clements had finally finished. “One Mark Clements is the person who has been a newsboy, who sought to earn money to help his guardian . . . and this Mark Clements is also the person who has compassion for others, and who would not take the life of another person, because this Mark Clements understands life is precious . . .
“There is another Mark Clements, though,” Cousins went on, “an antisocial person. . . . A heinous person–the second Mark Clements–killed these people. . . . It is the manifestation of a diabolical mind . . .
“It may be said that he was driven . . . by virtue of his past history, and a person is a creature, to some extent, of his past history, and his history has been horrible,” Cousins said. “And as Mark Clements himself has brought home to this court, there are many imperfections in society and havoc is wrought with the lives of a great many people, and justice does not prevail. . . . But one must learn to cope. Mark Clements has not learned to cope . . .
“This court has substantial problems about the tragedies that are wrought in urban society. This court does not want to deprive Mark Clements–the first Mark Clements–of the right to live in society for the rest of his life. But this court has no alternative, relative to the protection of society, but to deny the second Mark Clements the opportunity to live in society for the rest of his life. . . . The defendant believes in the Bible. That’s the first Mark Clements. It is the second Mark Clements that this court must now sentence . . .”
And then Cousins issued the sentences: 30 years for the arson, four life terms for the murders. Cooney asked if his client could visit briefly with his mother in the courtroom. Cousins granted the request. He announced a brief recess. Soon after, one former newsboy was led to the lockup, and the other returned to the bench and called the next case.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.