Ald. Jean-Baptiste to be circuit court judge, resign as alderman

The Illinois Supreme Court appointed Ald. Lionel Jean-Baptiste (2nd) to the Cook County Circuit Court as a judge last week to fill a vacancy left by a judge’s death.

Jean-Baptiste will begin his term March 4, according to the court order. He will serve until Dec. 3, 2012, filling the position of Judge Gerald Bender, who died last November. After serving on the City Council since 2001, Jean-Baptiste said he will announce his resignation as an alderman at the council meeting Monday, and his aldermanic duties will officially end Feb. 28.

The alderman, who has been an attorney for 20 years, will serve in the Cook County ninth subcircuit judicial court. He said although he has considered being a judge in the past, he has not considered it seriously until recently.

“I had not really begun an earnest focus on that career path until maybe the end of fall 2010,” Jean-Baptiste said. “I made some inquiry to understand the process, and I worked to support the election of some other judges. Then a vacancy became available in my circuit, my name was submitted by Justice (Charles) Freeman and it began to intensify around mid-December, when I had to submit information about myself. I was interviewed and found to be qualified for the position.”

Illinois statute sets the guidelines for picking a replacement when an aldermanic position becomes vacant in the middle of a term. Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl will appoint a replacement, and after the rest of City Council approves the appointment, whoever Tisdahl picks will serve the remainder of the term, which will end April 2013.

Jean-Baptiste said he will help Tisdahl in choosing his successor.

“Given the amount of time left in my tenure, the mayor will probably rely on my counsel, take it into consideration and make a determination from there,” he said.

As a circuit court judge, Jean-Baptiste said he expects to first work on traffic cases and observe other judges during their cases. Circuit court judges handle various level of conflicts, from traffic to civil and commercial litigations and criminal matters, but he said he does not know where he will ultimately end up.

“For attorneys who have been practitioners for many years, they’re already familiar with how the system works and what the judges do,” he said. “But I’ll still go through a process of training and observation, then they’ll eventually assign me.”

Jean-Baptiste will join another former Evanston alderman in the ninth subcircuit court, Judge Steven Bernstein. Jean-Baptiste and Bernstein, who served as an alderman for the 4th ward, worked together in the City Council from 2001 until 2009, when Bernstein decided he did not want to seek another term and instead ran for circuit court a few months later.

Bernstein said he praises Jean-Baptiste’s appointment and believes his aldermanic experiences will help him as a circuit judge.

“He’s used to making decisions that impact people’s lives,” Bernstein said. “He’s been the chairman of contentious hearings, where hundreds of people come and are not happy about something, which is analogous to courtroom management. He knows the laws, he’s created the laws and he has served constituents. He’s a wonderful guy. He’ll be great at everything he does, but he’s definitely well-suited to be a good judge.”

Jean-Baptiste agrees that certain aspects of his job as alderman will continue when he becomes a circuit judge. For one thing, he said he’s used to meeting with interest groups who articulate their demands to the City Council, and he has had to be wary of making decisions that could marginalize those who could not voice their side of the story. As a judge, he expects to hone the ability to listen even more and continue to learn how to make careful decisions, he said.

Jean-Baptiste graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science from Princeton University in 1974, and he received his law degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law in 1990. He’s also involved in Haitian community of Evanston, serving as the vice-chairman for The Haitian Congress to Fortify Haiti.

The Haitian-born alderman has lived in Evanston since 1964. He graduated from Evanston Township High School in 1970, and he is serving his third term as an alderman. He said he’ll miss the people he’s worked with and the general experience as an alderman when he leaves for the judge post next month.

“It has been a labor of love serving and working with constituents around issues that are important to their quality of life,” he said. “I’ve also gotten to really enjoy learning from my colleagues, trying to work through processes to solve problems in the city. You’re leaving that which is familiar, and I’ve enjoyed the entire job and interactions from all over.”

Ald. Delores Holmes (5th) said the appointment is very exciting for Jean-Baptiste but very sad for the city of Evanston.

“He’s very knowledgeable about most subjects, and he’s very vocal about his perspective on the issues,” Holmes said. “I’m truly sorry he will no longer be in the council, but I’m very excited for him.”

But for Jean-Baptiste, his resignation from City Council does not mark the end of his involvement in the Evanston community. Though his new job will prevent him from getting involved in the government, he looks to continue his activism in the community.

“I will still find opportunity to help the youth become productive citizens,” he said. “I’d like to model the kind of behavior that I want them to follow, and I’ll do that by continuing my presence at schools and mentoring the youth.”

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