A great Chicagoan died this week at the age of 95. He was an American hero. His name was John W. Rogers.
I came of age as a juvenile defense lawyer in Rogers’ courtroom at Cook County Juvenile Court at 1100 S. Hamilton Ave.
In 1991, I left private practice at a commercial litigation firm in the Loop to accept a clinical teaching fellowship at Northwestern University School of Law.
I jumped at the opportunity because it meant that I would work under the direction of Tom Geraghty, Northwestern’s clinical director, and a professor who had taught me juvenile law in law school.
Tom and I focused our representation on children charged with the most serious crimes in juvenile court and, specifically, in their hearings to determine whether they would be tried as juveniles or transferred to criminal court.
Rogers was one of only two judges who presided over the transfer hearings.
All of our clients were 13 or 14 at the time of the crime; children 15 or older who were charged with murders were sent directly to criminal court.
The stakes were high in these hearings — a win was a second chance for the child, an opportunity to benefit from the rehabilitative services of the juvenile court, its shorter terms of imprisonment and its confidentiality.
A loss meant that the child would be tried as an adult in criminal court and, if convicted, would be branded a criminal for life and face a prison sentence ranging from a decade to life.
Deciding who should stay in juvenile court and who should go to criminal court was a Solomonic task.
And Rogers was up to that task.
As crack cocaine hit Chicago’s streets and gangs fought turf battles over who would control the drug trade, juvenile crime exploded in the early 1990s.
The Cook County state’s attorney’s office’s answer to this problem was to move to transfer almost every juvenile charged with murder to criminal court.
And Rogers was one of the few people with the power to stand in the state’s way. He presided over some of the most difficult and high-profile murder cases, cases involving the children who came to be labeled as “the super predators.”
Chicago — indeed, the whole country — was in the midst of a moral panic, fearing a coming Armageddon of a new breed of juvenile offenders who would rape, maim or kill innocents without a second thought.
In the wake of the such dire predictions, it would have been easy and popular for Rogers to do the state’s bidding and just transfer all of these cases to criminal court.
But Rogers did not go for assembly-line justice. He believed that he needed to hear as much information about the child and the crime he or she allegedly had committed before making his decision.
He valued the recommendations of his probation officers and took to heart the testimony of the psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, teachers and the other witnesses we brought before him.
Don’t get me wrong. Rogers was no pushover, no softy when it came to juvenile crime.
Although we won our share of cases before him, we lost a few as well. I disagreed with these decisions, but I respected Rogers because win or lose, he always let us put on our case.
Rogers was an American hero long before he took the juvenile court bench in 1977, but few of us who practiced before him knew of his heroism.
He didn’t, for example, brag about the fact that he had graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in the late 1940s at a time when few black students attended law school. I didn’t know he was a University of Chicago law grad until I read his obituary.
Nor did he talk to us of his heroism during World War II. I can’t remember when I learned that he was a Tuskegee airman — one of the legendary group of black men who broke the color line as fighter pilots during World War II — but I know for sure that he didn’t tell me.
As a Tuskegee airman, Rogers probably could have had his pick of any courtroom he wanted in which to preside. But he chose to stay in juvenile court and he chose to be in the line of fire by handling some of the toughest cases in the court in one of the most trying times in the court’s history.
Rogers recognized that decisions as grave as transfer should not be automatic.
He understood that children should not be judged only by the worst thing they had ever done in their lives.
And he understood that judges, and not prosecutors or legislators, should be the ones to decide their fates. In an age where so many were all too eager to throw children’s lives out with the bath water, Rogers’ work in juvenile court, once again, was nothing short of heroic.
In 1999, when juvenile court was celebrating its 100th anniversary, then-Public Guardian Patrick Murphy suggested that the court be named after Rogers and former presiding judge William White.
I think a more fitting tribute would be to rewrite the laws that have stripped judges of the power to decide transfer cases in juvenile court and have limited the power of judges to fashion individualized sentences for juveniles convicted in adult court.