A recent report highlighting questionable ethics practices by “Illinois’ top political power couple” suggests the woman about to become Illinois’ top judge could have used her seat on the Illinois Supreme Court to benefit her indicted husband’s private law practice.
WBEZ in an Oct. 8 report identified at least 10 instances in which Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke decided on cases involving parties who at the time were being represented as clients of her husband’s law firm. The firm, Klafter & Burke, is where her husband, Chicago 14th Ward Ald. Ed Burke, was until recently a partner. Ed Burke gave up his partnership after being charged with corruption in a 14-count federal indictment. Anne Burke is about to become the high court’s chief justice.
While WBEZ notes it is not certain that Justice Burke’s rulings on those cases were influenced by the parties’ relationship with Klafter & Burke, her decisions have spared many of her husband’s clients from “significant financial and legal risk.” Public filings do not show how much money the firm made off the alderman’s clients while they awaited judgement from Justice Burke’s court, or whether any of that money found its way to Anne Burke. It also remains unclear why the justice recused herself from some cases, but declined to do so in others.
Klafter & Burke is among the leading law practices in Cook County that specializes in appealing commercial and industrial property tax bills. From 2011 to 2016 alone, the firm appealed on $4.7 billion in assessed property value – fourth-highest in the county – winning $865 million in total property tax reductions for its clients. “Banks, a big Chicago landlord, a suburban shopping mall, a prominent downtown hospital and ComEd” have been among those who patronized Ald. Burke’s practice while sitting opposite Justice Burke in the courtroom since 2006, when she first won a seat on the bench, according WBEZ.
ComEd is Klafter & Burke’s second-largest client yet Anne Burke did not know it was a client of her husband’s firm, according to WBEZ. The firm has won nearly $4.3 million in property tax refunds for the utility since 2009. The report has so far prompted one leading state lawmaker to call for an investigation.
State Rep. Grant Wehrli, R-Naperville, issued a letter Oct. 9 requesting the Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board investigate possible conflicts in cases involving her husband’s firm from which Justice Burke did not recuse herself.
Wehrli, an assistant minority leader in the Illinois House of Representatives, said in a statement that Justice Burke’s failure to recuse herself in those cases “certainly raises valid concerns.” “The people of Illinois deserve to know the conduct of those charged with interpreting our laws are first and foremost following those laws themselves,” Wehrli said.
In April, Ald. Burke stepped down from his private law practice rather than his political position after the Chicago City Council voted unanimously to approve Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s ethics reform package. The reforms included stricter rules on local leaders engaging in conflicts of interest. Burke’s dual ability to influence property tax policy in public office and profit by appealing clients’ property taxes in his private practice had long served as an emblem of Chicago’s culture of corruption.
Ald. Burke is Chicago’s longest-serving City Council member, and is regarded as among the most influential. In January, a 14-count federal corruption charge forced Burke to resign as chairman of the council’s powerful Committee on Finance, stripping him of his supervisory role over the city’s massive workers’ comp program, itself an opaque nest of political patronage.
A federal indictment against the alderman did not stop Illinois’ high court justices from selecting Anne Burke in September to succeed outgoing Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Lloyd Karmeir as the state’s highest-ranking justice. Chief justices serve three-year terms.
“Ethics laws exist for a reason, and every elected official, from library board trustee all the way up to Justices of the Supreme Court, have a responsibility to avoid any appearance of impropriety,” Wehrli’s statement said. “In order to maintain transparency and preserve ethical standards, officials must step away, not only when a clear conflict of interest exists, but also when the appearance of a conflict exists. Justice Burke’s decisions against recusal in these ten cases casts a cloud of doubt over every one of those rulings.”
Anne Burke won re-election in 2018 to another 10-year term on the Illinois Supreme Court. Her first term as chief justice begins Oct. 26.