Court Clout (9-27-1947)

The Municipal Court of Chicago was not doing its job.

Back in the 19th Century, the city had been under the jurisdiction of various overlapping courts, including Cook County justices of the peace.  The Municipal Court was founded in 1905 to modernize the system.  The new court was an immediate success, and other cities rushed to copy the Chicago idea.


Now, in 1947, the Municipal Court had 36 judges who heard 400,000 cases a year, and operated on an annual budget of nearly $2.8 million.  And politics had taken over.

Administrative jobs at the court were political plums.  All the deputy bailiffs and clerks had connections.  Many of them were Democrat precinct captains.  The chief bailiff and chief court clerk were both party committeemen.

One lawyer said that the Municipal Court was now run on “a Chinese system of paying out small sums.”  If you wanted your case called, you slipped the clerk some cash—the more you paid, the closer you got to the top of the list.  Don’t pay, and your paperwork might get “lost.”


The judges worked an average of 15 hours a week.  To get through their cases quickly, some of them ran their courts like an assembly line.  The litigants would line up, then pass before the bench to say a few words to His Honor, who would then render his decision.  Some judges could dispose of 100 cases in three hours.

And once the judge was done for the day, the staff didn’t bother to stick around.  Many of them spent the afternoon talking to voters, or working at another job, or at the race track.

The quality of justice varied with the individual judge.  According to local attorneys, the Municipal Court didn’t have any outright “cash register” judges.  Still, at least a dozen of the judges were totally incompetent.


The police had their own troubles with the court.  No matter how much evidence they gathered to support an arrest, the case would be dismissed if the defendant had political clout.  And if a cop wanted his case called on time, he had to pay off the clerk, like everybody else did.

The Municipal Court of Chicago was abolished in a 1964 judicial reorganization.


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