"No, no!" said the Queen. "Sentence first -- verdict afterwards." "Stuff and nonsense!" said Alice loudly. "The idea of having the sentence first!" "Hold your tongue!" said the Queen, turning purple. "I won't!" said Alice. "Off with her head!" the Queen shouted at the top of her voice.
--Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Leaving her mother in charge of a son with cerebral palsy, Camilla Clifton headed to the Cook County criminal courthouse to support her nephew, on trial in 2009 for an attempted murder she believed he did not commit.
Clifton would not see her family again for three days.
During a lunch break in the trial of Rodrick Doxy, Clifton left Judge Diane Gordon Cannon's courtroom and used her cellphone in a washroom to check on her disabled son, according to court documents. At the time, cell phones were allowed in the courthouse, but Judge Cannon barred them from her courtroom, not wanting photos taken of witnesses or jurors.
Clifton finished the call, but was still holding the cell phone as she entered the hallway outside the washroom. That is when Judge Cannon spotted her. Claiming that jurors were walking nearby, Cannon immediately summoned Clifton to the bench. Without hearing Clifton's version of events -- she used the phone briefly to call home and saw no jurors -- the judge held her in contempt of court, according to a transcript of the proceeding. She was locked up, without bond, in the Cook County jail.
Three days later, Judge Cannon hauled Clifton back into court and asked if she had anything to say before tacking on more time -- five months in jail. "I just want to apologize," Clifton said so softly that Cannon had to ask her to speak up. "I just wanted to apologize because... I didn't do it on purpose."
"Don't start lying to me, ma'am," Cannon admonished.
"I didn't know we couldn't use cell phones on the outside of the courtroom," Clifton tried to explain, "and I was just calling my mom to get my disabled son off the bus."
Cannon was incredulous. "Standing outside my courtroom with an open cell phone, that tops a disabled son getting off a bus...?" she demanded. "You're not mother of the year, ma'am. I'll call DCFS [child welfare] today."
"No... I would never leave my children," Clifton insisted. "As far as my son, he gets dropped off right in front of the house. It's not like I just leave him. I'm always there to pick him up."
"Well, you weren't there when you were standing out in the hallway with your cellphone popped up after I ordered everyone to turn off their phones, and I'm sorry that your sister [the mother of Doxy, the defendant] didn't have the right mind to relay that to you," Cannon declared.
Then, in the middle of a trial over which she was presiding, but without the jury present, Cannon said this to Clifton: "I hope you don't let your kids outside during the day when you've got people like your nephew firing in broad daylight into cars four blocks from your house." (Some might wonder why Cannon didn't simply find Doxy guilty and send the jury home.)
As Clifton fell deeper into a hole, her public defender asked to speak. She told the judge that Clifton, 34, was a divorced mother with three children who had never been arrested. She worked as a nurse's aide at Weiss Memorial Hospital. "She works 32 hours a week, $800 for rent, she supports the children on her own," the lawyer said, "and she's going to school, three credits away from getting her associate's degree. We would ask you to take that into consideration."
"Miss Clifton, I will take that into consideration," Cannon said, adding that "I hope that you don't treat patients in the hospital the way you treated this Court..."
Cannon did not re-incarcerate Clifton, but fired this parting shot: "Tend to your family, your children, do you understand? Or you will be visiting your children as defendants." Then she barred her from the criminal courthouse. "Do not enter this building unless you have a case," she ordered.
Clifton left as quickly as possible and was not in court to comfort her sister when Doxy was found guilty of attempted murder -- for allegedly shooting the victim in the hand. And, Clifton was not present when Cannon sentenced the 18-year-old to 40 years -- just shy of the maximum under Illinois law.
If the name Diane Gordon Cannon rings a bell, perhaps it is because you read about her right here in The Huffington Post last month. That is when the 58-year-old judge held Serbian immigrant Marko Pentelic in contempt for whispering to a friend during a court break and returning to the courtroom to retrieve his car keys. His punishment: three weeks in the County jail -- for starters.
Cannon subsequently summoned Pentelic from the jail and slammed him with a 120-day sentence based on claims that were hotly disputed by courtroom observers. But high-ranking judges read an updated HuffPost article about the additional sentence on Sept. 26, and Pentelic, who like Clifton had no criminal record, was set free that night. He has been under the constant care of doctors ever since, suffering from migraine headaches and bouts of anxiety.
Asked about Cannon's actions in these and other notable cases, Presiding Judge Paul Biebel failed to reply to repeated messages. He also did not answer a separate question about whether Cannon had the authority to bar anyone from the courthouse.
But Cannon has hit the radar of a renowned federal judge. Senior U.S. District Judge Milton Shadur is considering an appeal of Doxy's conviction based on whether Judge Cannon violated his federal constitutional right to a fair and public trial. At issue, in part, is Cannon's exclusion of Camilla Clifton from the courtroom.
On Sept. 30, Judge Shadur ordered the case to move forward. "In what has to be an astonishing coincidence," Shadur wrote, "this Court's attention has been called to an article that appeared this week in the Huffington Post, reporting on an incident that occurred earlier this month in the courtroom of Judge Cannon, whose conduct as the trial judge in Doxy's case forms the gravamen of his charge of constitutional violation...." (How Judge Shadur came to read the HuffPost article about Marko Pentelic is a mystery, but it was not brought to his attention by Doxy's lawyers with the Cook County Public Defender's Office or by me.)
So Judge Cannon's draconian treatment of a young mother could lead to a new trial for her nephew. Is Karma at work? If so, what will happen to Cannon?
Judge Shadur, as a federal judge, does not have the authority to discipline Cannon, a state court jurist. But he could eventually refer the matter to the Judicial Inquiry Board, which looks into allegations of misconduct by judges.
And while it is too late for Clifton to sue Cannon, a civil rights suit by Pentelic is in the works. Trouble is, judges enjoy immunity from virtually all lawsuits.
At the end of the day, it may come down to the voters. Cannon is up for retention next year and needs 60 percent of the vote to keep her seat on the bench.
When you go to the polls, put yourself in Camilla Clifton's shoes. Imagine what it must have felt like, as a single mom struggling to make ends meet while caring for three children, for a criminal court judge to say with a sneer: "You're not mother of the year."
Then cast your ballot to restore justice to our courts.
Tomorrow: Judge Cannon draws the ire of appellate justices.