THE BLOG
10/29/2013 09:33 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

What's Justice Got to Do With It?

"Justice is in the interest of the stronger."
Thrasymachus, Plato's The Republic

"I'm looking for someone to explain justice," said Grace Slattery to a reporter. Slattery was lamenting the comparatively stiff prison sentence her son Patrick had received for his part in a patronage scandal under ex-Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Plato, Hobbes and Dostoyevsky had a few ideas about justice, but if Slattery wanted someone closer to home, she could have turned to her own daughter. Maura Slattery Boyle, 46, has been a Cook County judge since 2000 -- the last four years hearing only criminal cases. What would she have told her mother about the meaning of justice?

Imagine a mother-daughter chat one afternoon in the daughter's South Side Bridgeport home, just two blocks from where Richard J. Daley raised his family. Richard J., of course, was the first Mayor Daley and the father of Chicago's Democratic political machine. The "Boss," as legendary journalist Mike Royko called Daley, might have had similar conversations with his sons: Richard, who became state's attorney and mayor, William, a presidential chief of staff and cabinet member, and John, still a powerful County Commissioner.

Let's eavesdrop on what a sitting judge might say about the way justice really works in Clout City.

"Well, Ma, it's like this," she begins. "Thanks to the Daleys, I get to decide what justice is." Slattery Boyle worked for the second Mayor Daley in the city's Law Department and was a Cook County prosecutor, she reminds her mother. "And I never would have been elected judge without John's backing," she says, referring to Commissioner Daley, her neighbor and political sponsor. "After all, I was only 33 and a John Marshall Law School grad."

"So justice means being loyal to our old friends for everything they've done for us," she shrugs. 'Everything' includes her $180,979.87 annual salary as a judge -- and coming through in a pinch when controversial cases need deciding.

Slattery Boyle couldn't resist telling her mother about the most recent time she dispensed some Cook County-style justice. The case involved a pair of Northwest Side men from Humboldt Park, far from Slattery Boyle's Bridgeport world.

In 1994, Armando Serrano and Jose Montanez were convicted of gunning down a Humboldt Park resident as he left for work. The prosecution's star witness was a heroin addict who claimed he overheard the men confess. The only other witness was the victim's widow, who said she saw a group of Latinos argue with her husband the night before, though she couldn't identify Serrano or Montanez at the trial. Both witnesses recanted their testimony years later, saying it was coerced or fabricated by Det. Reynaldo Guevara, a retired cop with a long history of framing innocent suspects.

Serrano and Montanez filed an innocence petition and, in 2009, Judge Jorge Alonso ordered a full-blown hearing.

"That meant big trouble," Slattery Boyle recalls. "What if they got a new trial? Suppose they went free after 20 years?" she asks, rubbing her temples. "It would have been an embarrassment to our justice system" -- and led to multimillion dollar lawsuits against the City. "Freeing those two 'mutts,' as my friend the prosecutor called them, would be bad for Chicago," she sighs.

"So I was honored that the presiding judge asked me to take over the case from Judge Alonso right after he ordered the hearing," Slattery Boyle says with a wink. "I knew exactly what my pals at City Hall needed me to do to save the day."

What was that, Grace Slattery wonders?

"Get rid of the case, Ma."

But that proved to be more difficult than expected, Slattery Boyle explains. Turns out Det. Reynaldo Guevara ("Che Guevara," she unwittingly calls him) took the Fifth rather than testify about his investigation, the victim's widow was ready to repudiate her original testimony and the prosecution's star witness, the heroin addict, would have joined her if he didn't fear perjury charges.

"And that lawyer from Brooklyn kept challenging me," Slattery Boyle continued. "She even accused my friends in the state's attorney's office of paying off the heroin addict." The very thought of Jennifer Bonjean, Serrano's volunteer lawyer, intensifies the sighing and temple-rubbing.

"So it was tough to dump this case. But I did it!" Slattery Boyle boasts.

"How did you do it, Maura?"

"Well, Ma, I didn't let the widow testify for some legal reason I still don't understand," she says. "Then I prevented that loud-mouthed Brooklyn lawyer from mentioning the payoffs -- and I threatened her with contempt for constantly folding her arms. Next I ruled that all the evidence of brutality by Che Guevara, that hard-working detective [or Marxist revolutionary], was irrelevant." Here, Slattery Boyle flashes a devious smile. "But my favorite decision was granting the prosecutors' motion to dismiss the case right in the middle of the hearing!"

"It got a little scary at the end when that Serrano fellow said he was innocent and called me 'a criminal, just like the prosecutors.' Can you imagine?" she shudders. But Slattery Boyle had learned a trick from the master, the original Mayor Daley. "I shut off the mutt's microphone, just like Rich's daddy did when those annoying aldermen tried to argue with him."

"I'm very proud of you, dear, but aren't you worried that something bad might happen to you, like your brother? "

"Nah, Ma, the appeals court might reverse my decisions, but that's about it."

"Does that happen a lot?"

"Hmm, let me think," Slattery Boyle says. "Yeah, a half-dozen times this year so far. There was that nasty heroin case in February where I was partly reversed. Then later that month the justices said I found in favor of the wrong lawyer in a dispute over bail money. In April, they ruled I shouldn't have sided with the cops and threw out a drug conviction, and in May they said I goofed in dismissing an innocence petition in a murder case.

"Another time in May, the appeals court decided that I was wrong to accept a guilty plea in a case involving a Latino who could have been deported. One more. Oh yeah, in June they tossed out my sentence in a drug trafficking case. And that doesn't count all the appeals they haven't ruled on yet, like the Serrano case."

"They're paying a lot of attention to you. My daughter is a big shot!"

"Thanks, Ma. And here's the best part: I get to make even more rulings when they send these cases back to me. So now do you understand what justice means?"

"Sure do. It means our friends win and those mutts lose."

Pamela Cytrynbaum contributed to this article.