Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged by Mike Royko

It’s obvious that Virginia Martinez doesn’t know the first thing about journalism.

The first thing to know about journalism is that you keep both hands above the table. Last February Martinez, the Sun-Times’s weekly columnist “on issues of social responsibility,” didn’t. Touting Ambrosio Medrano for alderman in the 25th Ward over incumbent Juan Soliz, she wrote that Medrano “understands the needs of the people.” Medrano “can bring together various segments of the community.”

Martinez was so convinced of Medrano’s virtues that she’d already joined his “citizens’ committee” and helped raise money to fund his campaign. But her readers–and her editors–only learned of these activities when a testy letter to the editor pointed them out.

A lawyer by profession, Virginia Martinez is also a once-a-week commentator on Channel Five. A couple of weeks ago she spoke up on behalf of a juvenile court judge Mike Royko had savaged in print. She called the judge “a capable and committed jurist.” She said Royko had presented a “distorted and slanted version of the facts” of a recent case.

Here’s what she didn’t say: she’s the friend of and shares office space with a lawyer in that case. This lawyer represented a mother, Irene Taboda, who had just received unsupervised visitation rights with her two surviving children–the third child, a three-year-old girl, died in 1988 after the mother’s boyfriend poured boiling water over her. Royko wrote that the mother “stood by” during this assault, and “when she finally got around to taking little Lilly to the hospital . . . said the child had somehow poured the water on herself.”

The boyfriend also had beaten Lilly, Royko added, and in Taboda’s presence he had sexually abused all three children.

The boyfriend pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to 60 years in prison. Irene Taboda was declared unfit by Judge Morgan Hamilton, and her children were taken away. She entered therapy and was later allowed supervised meetings with her children. On May 1 Judge Hamilton took the next step; she said unsupervised meetings could now take place.

“I find it hard to believe,” Royko wrote two days later, “that in three years this creature has been transformed from a passive bystander to murder, rape, and other cruelty into an acceptable mom.” This column took the form of an open letter to Harry Comerford, the chief judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County.

It began: “Do me a favor. When you have a few minutes, will you explain why in the hell you have someone like Judge Morgan Hamilton sitting in Juvenile Court?”

And it ended: “So I humbly suggest that you straighten this out. If not, the next time there is an election for judges, I’ll humbly suggest that the voters straighten it out.”

The column hit Comerford like a noseful of horseradish. He called Patrick T. Murphy, the Cook County public guardian. “What do you think I should do?” Murphy says Comerford asked him.

Later in the day Murphy and Comerford talked again. Hamilton had written Comerford a letter asking for a transfer to “an assignment where my attempts to follow the law will not be criticized.”

That was fine with Comerford. He unceremoniously shifted Hamilton to the Daley Center before the day was out. A few days later Martinez went on television. “Judges are required to make tough decisions,” she said. “We cannot allow them to be sitting ducks for commentators who can ignore a judge’s entire record and ignore the facts of a particular case to present a slanted picture to incite public outrage. Judge Hamilton deserved support from the chief judge, and the public deserves a court system with integrity enough to stand up to anybody, even a well-known commentator.”

Royko fired back in the Tribune: “If they’re going to go on giving abused children as much respect as laboratory rats, I’m going to go on inciting public outrage. And Ms. Martinez and Channel 5 can take that and stick it in their earphones.”

When Royko found out from Murphy that Martinez shared space with James Rosas, Irene Taboda’s attorney, his guns roared again. “Of course, these little omissions [the other one was the Medrano column] could be the result of Ms. Martinez’s versatility and energy,” he wrote. “She wears so many hats, professionally speaking, that she might forget which one she has on.”

We talked to Martinez. She doesn’t get it. She doesn’t understand how in journalism appearances can count for more than content. We asked why she didn’t mention Rosas in her commentary. “I have a minute and a half,” she said. Besides, what’s the difference? She’d argued for the judge, not for Rosas’s client. “In terms of his [Royko’s] analogy,” she said, “I’m in the Temple Building–I should never talk about religion?”

She said, “My commentaries are my opinion, and I have a personal interest in everything I give a commentary on. I write on infant mortality–I cochair the mayor’s committee on infant mortality. . . . Are you telling me that every other commentator who’s written an article supportive of a particular candidate has not been involved in that candidate’s efforts? Their name has not appeared on a citizens’ committee? They have not appeared at a function?”

It’s frowned on, we said.

“But I write one column a week, and I do one commentary a week,” Martinez tried to explain. “I’m a lawyer by profession. I’m not a journalist.”

Dick Reingold, the news director at Channel Five, wouldn’t discuss Martinez’s lapses. Dennis Britton, editor of the Sun-Times, didn’t hesitate. “When we bought her column [last October],” Britton said, “it was with the understanding she was not going to be conflicted by two things–active political involvement and the practice of law. At least on the surface, it would look like she’s violated both of those.” Britton said he’d asked Ray Coffey, the editor of the editorial pages, to talk to Martinez and get her side of it.

The problem, we said, seems to be that nobody’s explained basic journalism to her.

“She came to me as an advocate of children to write a child-advocacy thing,” Britton said, adding, “Candidly, I was cynically aware we needed a Hispanic voice. Ray and I sat and talked with her and told her what we thought would be the conflicts. So we did have the discussion. We did not do Journalism 101 though, and perhaps we should have. But she’s a sophisticated woman. She should have known better.”

“This is not about me,” Martinez almost pleaded to us. She wishes it weren’t. She wishes it were about the point she tried to make in the commentary Royko ridiculed.

Should a presiding judge cave in like that to a columnist? The Chicago Council of Lawyers thinks not. The CCL wrote Comerford notifying him that “there is concern that your failure to support a judge who took an unpopular position will discourage other judges from reaching difficult decisions, even if they are following the law.”

A group of about 40 juvenile-law and child-welfare specialists organized by the CCL sent Comerford an open letter praising Hamilton as “a meticulous, thorough, and careful jurist.” By not standing up for Hamilton, Comerford allowed her “to serve as a scapegoat,” the letter argued, predicting a “chilling effect” on other judges.

And the Illinois Judicial Council, composed primarily of minority and women judges, wrote State’s Attorney Jack O’Malley to support Hamilton’s ruling and surmise that Royko had been fed skewed information by prosecutors who disagreed with it. “In a free society,” the council reminded O’Malley, “the prosecutor is not also the judge.”

Murphy absolutely disagrees with these sentiments. He calls Hamilton “a bright, very, very rigid person,” more committed to reuniting families than to rescuing children. “I think there are some crimes so serious you don’t rehabilitate,” Murphy told us. He’s glad she’s gone.

At any rate, the full story turns out to be a complex one. Judge Hamilton’s ruling was denounced in some quarters, her sudden transfer in other quarters. Was the Tribune’s coverage full and balanced? Royko dwelled on Martinez, the most hapless of Comerford’s critics, and the Tribune ignored all the others. Here’s one reality of newspapering that Martinez can grasp–when no one covers a story but a columnist, a lot of good journalism doesn’t get done.

Quayle by Comparison

A friend of ours with a bent for psychological complexity imagined the following scenario: A black-clad partisan scales the castle wall and leaps from the king’s balcony into the royal chamber. “Summon your guard!” he hisses, waving a pistol. The cowering monarch does as he’s told, and the hulking praetorians file in. Each is quickly dispatched with a bullet to the head as the horrified king looks on. And with a cry of “Death to those who defend despots!” liberty’s cavalier vanishes into the night.

So why is everybody shooting at Dan Quayle?

What is it that this grinning minion would do so badly that George Bush does so well? Bush has exhibited two talents in his 28 months as president: the ability to get the nation into war and the ability to get it out again. Those aren’t negligible gifts, but a few more would be welcome.

Are we all afraid that Dan Quayle would manhandle George Bush’s farsighted strategy to put the nation’s economic house in order? That he would lack Bush’s abiding commitment to the environment? That his passion to overhaul the nation’s schools would run less deep? Or that he would nullify Bush’s painstaking efforts to advance the cause of racial amity?

Perhaps he simply lacks the president’s ability to inspire.

If God takes George Bush from us, Dan Quayle could lift himself above his predecessor with his very first act: by picking a vice president who doesn’t make him look competent by comparison.