By Ben Joravsky
In the annals of Cook County jurisprudence, there have been judges who appraised jewelry, judges who boxed, and judges who did time for taking bribes from federal snitches. But as far as anyone knows, there’s never been a judge who played rock ‘n’ roll.
Chris Stacey wants to change that.
At the risk of trivializing his years of courtroom experience, he’s running for circuit court judge in the March 17 Democratic primary on a campaign that accentuates his days and nights as a songwriter, singer, and guitarist. Given the goofy ways judges get elected, it just might work.
“Obviously, I think I’d make a great judge, but a lot of people are running and I need to break out of the pack,” says Stacey, whose press kit includes a cassette of him singing three songs. “Believe me, it’s not easy running for judge.”
Law and rock have been twisted strands in his life since the mid-70s, when he was a teenager growing up in suburban Milwaukee. “I was sort of a folkie and a jock,” he says. “I liked to play sports, but I always liked to hang out with the hippies over in the smoking lounge and write songs and listen to music.”
In high school he began writing folk rock songs inspired by Carole King, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, and other artists of his time. After graduation he toured with a gospel bluegrass band. He kept playing in bands as a college student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and in 1979 moved here to attend law school at John Marshall. “I played at the China Club, the Limelight, the Avalon, Lounge Ax, Beat Kitchen, and Schubas. I had a band called Chris Stacey and the Strangers, and another called Waltz Across Texas. The Strangers were sort of Tom Petty style, while Waltz was influenced by European stuff. People said we sounded like ‘Petty goes to Europe.'”
He has received favorable write-ups, he says, and the musicians he’s played with include Frankie Hill, Fareed Haque, and Elizabeth Conant. “It’s just like in high school–people are surprised that I can be in two worlds,” he says. “I go to things at my son’s school right after work and I’ll be wearing my suit and talking to the other parents about school stuff, so they don’t know about my rock ‘n’ roll. Or I’ll be with lawyers and we’ll talk law. One time I was taking a deposition in a product liability case and the lawyer from the other side was looking through the Reader and he saw my band’s picture, and he said, ‘Oh, my God, that’s you!’ But for the most part the two worlds don’t meet.”
As the years wore on, the gap between his worlds grew larger. His music career sputtered. He never got a record deal, and with four kids it was harder to play late-night gigs. But his legal career took off. He formed his own firm and earned a reputation as a spirited litigator who could handle both defense and plaintiff cases. He once argued a case before the Illinois Supreme Court.
By the summer of 1997 he decided he wanted to be a judge.
“I figured I knew the law as well as anyone else,” says Stacey. “My musician buddies thought it was a great idea. In my songs I like to mediate. I like to know both sides of a story. Being an artist relates to what I would want to do as a judge. You’re always in touch with the human side of life. A judge needs to be a good listener, and so does a songwriter.”
His first task was to gather the 500 signatures he needed to make the ballot. He soon found out that was the easiest part of a system in which there are far too many candidates and not enough voter interest. How can anyone possibly know enough to make a distinction between the dozens of judicial candidates on the ballot? Ballot layout makes the choice even more confusing. There are judges running from various geographical districts and judges running countywide. In Stacey’s case, he and Aidan Elizabeth O’Connor, Arnette Hubbard, Robert Dwyer Jr., Marguerite Ann Quinn, Edward Flanagan, and Paul August Karkula are running to fill the vacancy of Vincent Bentivenga. The first question most voters will ask is, who’s Vincent Bentivenga? (He’s a criminal court judge who’s retired.)
Many voters rely on recommendations from various bar groups, which are composed of brainy busybodies who study the legal fine points of lawyers and judges as if they were players in a baseball rotisserie league. (Stacey’s been endorsed or found qualified by several groups, including the Chicago Council of Lawyers, IVI-IPO, and the Illinois State Bar.) But the recommendations of these groups can be sullied by all sorts of vendettas and biases voters know nothing about. Ultimately, voters who don’t just skip the whole process may vote by gender or ethnicity: Jews for Jewish names, blacks for black names, women for women, and everyone for the Irish (a study in the old Chicago Lawyer showed that judicial candidates with Irish surnames usually win).
Perhaps the biggest break goes to the candidate with the party’s blessing. But ever the political neophyte, Stacey sought the backing of his local alderman, Gene Schulter, apparently not knowing that the real heavyweight in 47th Ward party matters was Democratic committeeman Ed Kelly. “Gene was pleasant,” says Stacey, “but he told me that commitments had been made.”
Unaligned with any boss, Stacey appeared last December before the party’s judicial slating committee, which was headed by Alderman Ed Burke. (It does seem strange that an alderman reportedly under federal investigation would oversee judicial slating.) “There was a bunch of party officials sitting around a table,” Stacey recalls. “I gave them my spiel and then I stood there waiting for questions. But they just said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and that was that. I had the distinct feeling that commitments, as Gene put it, had indeed already been made.”
A few days later the party endorsed Hubbard, who already sits in traffic court, leaving Stacey little choice but to emphasize his rock ‘n’ roll roots. As he sees things, it won’t backfire. After all, he’s not a heavy-metal dude, and he doesn’t do drugs, wear long hair, or write raunchy lyrics. Most of his songs are folksy ditties about love and relationships, including a recent paean to the Virgin Mary that he wrote for his church.
“I wrote it from Mary’s point of view. She could have said no about having the Christ child but she didn’t.”
Still, his campaign strategy has risks. “On the face of it, law and rock don’t mix,” says Jeff Smith, an Evanston lawyer who also writes and plays some rock ‘n’ roll. “I know a bankruptcy judge in the federal building, Gene Wedoff, who composes, but he does more classical and liturgical things. And there are a couple of bands composed entirely of lawyers. And in law school a bunch of us formed a band called Quiet Life, which is an in-joke because ‘quiet life’ is a phrase in a ruling that says the monopolist prefers a quiet life. Well, anyway, it sounds funny to a lot of lawyers. But, no, there haven’t been any rock ‘n’ roll judges that I know of.”
For the most part, the worlds are vastly different, says Smith. “If you’re up until two in the morning in some smoke-filled club you won’t be in prime shape to answer that emergency motion at nine o’clock for Judge Grumby. The law is a hard mistress, and all that. You’re not supposed to have a lot of time for hobbies unless it’s golf.
“A few years ago I was trying to get a band together. I put an ad in the paper and got a call from a kid who was really excited to play. He tells me his name and I asked if he was related to so-and-so and he says, ‘Yeah, that’s my dad. How do you know him?’ I said, ‘I used to practice law with him.’ Boy, you could just hear the crestfallen silence. Here he thinks he’s plugging into a whole new rock world. He probably thinks he’s talking to a guy who’s a combination of Jerry Garcia and Marilyn Manson. And it turns out he’s talking to another old lawyer, just like dad.”
The early handicappers have selected Hubbard and O’Connor as the favorites. Hubbard has the party endorsement, while O’Connor has the top line on the ballot and some voters might vote for her under the delusion that she’s the same O’Connor who sits on the U.S. Supreme Court. Then again, she might lose some votes to the other three Irish-surnamed candidates in the race.
“I hope some people will recognize my name from the clubs,” Stacey says. “We can use all the help we can get.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Chris Stacey photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.