‘Utility Infielder’ Role is Fine With Him For Now
By Stephanie Potter
Law Bulletin Staff Writer
Cook County Circuit Judge James A. Shapiro had wanted to be a judge for more than a decade before he was appointed to the bench in 2007.
He hasn’t been disappointed, calling it ”the greatest job I’ve ever had.”
Shapiro fondly recalls his first attempt at the bench, in 1996. It was a quaint operation that featured his now-teenaged children, Kevin and Allison, on the campaign posters.
”My posters didn’t have union bugs on them; I wasn’t slated,” Shapiro said. ”I just really didn’t know what I was doing, but I was having fun doing it, having fun learning.”
Shapiro was the runner-up to Ann E. Collins-Dole in a much more sophisticated campaign last fall in a crowded primary for a vacancy in the 8th subcircuit. He said that he has no regrets, though, and is open to the prospect of running again. For now, Shapiro is sitting by appointment until Nov. 30, 2009.
Shapiro is again having fun learning, this time as a judge in the 1st Municipal District. He said he enjoys the challenge of moving a heavy call and likes the wide variety of cases. He has presided over traffic and misdemeanor criminal cases, as well as forcible entry and detainer and other civil matters.
”I love being Mark DeRosa, being the utility infielder,” Shapiro said, in a reference to the versatile Chicago Cubs player.
Shapiro enjoys meeting the pro se litigants in minor traffic court, too, calling it the ”heartbeat of the city.”
”You really have a chance to make or break someone’s day,” Shapiro said. ”I try to give them a soft landing whenever I can.”
A colleague says that Shapiro is doing a good job at juggling the variety of assignments he receives. Cook County Circuit Judge William Edward Gomolinski, who trained Shapiro when he first came on the bench, describes him as a ”brilliant guy.”
”He knows the issues very well,” Gomolinski said. ”When you combine that with his other attributes, he makes a very good judge.”
Shapiro, 49, grew up in New York’s Westchester County, where his father, Ed, has spent the last 28 years hearing a variety of criminal and civil cases as a town justice. The elder Shapiro’s opinions are regularly published in case reporters. James Shapiro’s mother, Sandy, is an artist.
Shapiro said he grew to love Chicago after moving here right after law school to take a job with Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP.
I feel like I was meant to be here all along,” Shapiro said.
A college philosophy and history major at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., Shapiro said he went into law partly for the intellectual challenge. He considered becoming a philosophy professor, but balked because of the poor job prospects. Still, he has taught and lectured on the law throughout his career, and refers to teaching as ”my highest and best calling.”
He is now an adjunct professor teaching a federal courts class at The John Marshall Law School. In the late 1990s, he taught legal writing at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, and fondly recalled mentoring students to become better writers. He could relate to the struggle.
Shapiro’s first grade in law school was an ”F,” for a memo that read more like a philosophical treatise. Shapiro acknowledges that he’s not always a quick study, but colleagues say he more than made up for it later.
Former law partner Robert S. Schwartz described brief-writing as one of Shapiro’s specialties. ”His writing skills were impeccable and he’s almost like a walking thesaurus,” Schwartz said. ”He is a wordsmith.”
Prior to becoming a judge, Shapiro worked at several firms, practicing in such areas as criminal law, commercial litigation and employment discrimination. He also spent six years, from 1989 to 1995, as an assistant U.S. attorney, where he handled both civil and criminal matters.
David L. Applegate of Williams, Montgomery & John Ltd., who worked with Shapiro years ago at the now-defunct firm of Applegate, Valauskas, Rosen & Bernstein, said Shapiro’s range of experience and conscientiousness set him apart.
Applegate said Shapiro showed “a commitment to justice on all levels.”
Shapiro said his judicial credo has been fairness, a philosophy he also applied during his decadeplus stint as a hearing officer for the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission. Shapiro said he approached his job recommending discipline for other lawyers with a ”heavy heart.”
”I tried to treat respondents the way I would want to be treated were I in their shoes, while trying to be fair to the administrators’ interests too,” he said.
Schwartz, his former law partner, said that sense of fairness is one reason Shapiro will be a good judge. He also remarked upon Shapiro’s integrity.
”Jamie always did what he said he was going to do and lived up to,” Schwartz said.
Among his friends, Shapiro is known for fairness and enthusiasm for taking on tough challenges. Susan E. Cox, a federal magistrate judge and former college in the U.S. attorney’s office, said Shapiro is not the type to ”phone it in.”
Cox added that he is a loyal friend, recalling his dedication to her effort when she ran for a county judgeship in 2002.
”He was one of the guys who stood in the Dominick’s parking lot in the rain, collecting petitions,” she said. ”He’s just always been there.”
Attorney Sean C. Harrison appeared before Shapiro for a petition to rescind a summary suspension of his client’s driver’s license. He said Shapiro was courteous and gave both sides a fair hearing.
”It was a pleasure to do the hearing in front of him,” Harrison said.
Shapiro speaks Spanish, German and some French. He is trying to master Polish as well, although he finds it ”impervious to learning.” When possible, Shapiro said, he likes to speak to litigants in their native language.
”I hope it makes them feel a little bit more at home,” he said.
Volume 154, No. 247 December 17, 2010
Reprinted with permission from Law Bulletin Publishing Company.®