Paul P. Biebel Jr.’s eyes began to well as he read aloud the introduction to a book he received from his colleagues as a going-away gift.
The passage highlights how the Leighton Criminal Court Building’s walls are filled with “living history” and how predecessors’ footprints continue to influence those who work in the courthouse today.
“Paul Biebel, you have shaped this building, and it has shaped you. Your footsteps will continue to be heard,” it concludes.
Biebel, the presiding judge of the Cook County Circuit Court Criminal Division, will retire from the bench Monday.
Before he ever donned a black robe, Biebel spent 27 years of his legal career in public and private practice.
Aside from years spent at Winston & Strawn LLP and the now-defunct Altheimer & Gray, Biebel worked as a Cook County prosecutor, as first assistant attorney general in the Illinois attorney general’s office and Cook County public defender.
One of his most memorable experiences came while working for the attorney general. Of the many cases he argued as a lawyer, Biebel said his arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982 and 1983 on the winning side of Illinois v. Gates stand out. The high court ruled that police can properly establish probable cause by corroborating an anonymous tip.
And while the case’s issues were important, Biebel said, that was just one reason he so fondly remembers it.
“It’s very rare that somebody would get to the Supreme Court of the United States to argue, and I went to school at Georgetown so I was at that court a lot when I was in school,” he said. “It was a real honor for me to get back there as a lawyer.”
Those years in practice prepared him well to be a judge, he said, because the experience not only heightened his analytical skills but also taught him how to write and research.
A few months after his appointment as a Cook County circuit judge in October 1996, Biebel got assigned to the Child Protection Division of Juvenile Court, where he served for three years.
His time in that division helped him recognize issues that face society, he said, but through the perspective of young people who suffered from abuse or neglect.
“I came to the realization that the experiences that people have as young persons affects their brain and how they’re going to approach life in the future,” he said.
Juvenile court, he said, became the place to try to put children in the kind of healthy environment that would prevent them from showing up in the felony court he’s presided over for the last 14 years. It was also where he said he formed much of the philosophy he incorporated as a judge — to treat people with respect in every case.
Cook County Associate Judge Alfredo Maldonado said he admires that kind of compassion in Biebel, and it’s one reason he considers the presiding judge a role model.
Daniel R. Waltz, Biebel’s law clerk, said the kind of mentorship he has received from the presiding judge stands out because of Biebel’s experience and enthusiasm for discussing cases.
“I think very few people get the opportunity to work with somebody like him,” he said.
Aside from the mentorship, Waltz said, Biebel possesses an “incredible mind” that always looks at the big picture and wastes no time accomplishing goals he sets for the court.
“He’s a very good people person, and he knows how to use his relationships to do what’s best for the system,” Waltz said.
In a court facility that had 2,557 trials spread across 31 judges in 2014, Many of the people who appear before the court have been arrested before and come from troubled backgrounds.
Judges also face many people who are unfit to stand trial because they either cannot understand their charges or are unable to cooperate with their attorneys.
The increasing awareness and availability of services for court patrons with mental health issues is just one aspect in which Biebel said criminal justice has changed over the years.
“I think there’s a realization that there’s a lot of wounded people in our society who end up in trouble with the law,” he said. “In recent years, we’ve had to deal with the issues that they face such as mental health or drug problems.”
In recognizing the need to address those problems, Biebel helped establish the state’s first mental health court in 2005.
More have opened around the state since, and Illinois now boasts almost 20 so-called problem-solving courts that address not just mental health but drug and veterans issues as well.
Biebel’s ability to start new courts or committees wasn’t simply a product of his experience in the criminal justice system. It also stemmed from his assertiveness.
“When it’s all taken together, he has those ideas out there that he can act on,” said Cook County Circuit Judge Joseph G. Kazmierski Jr.
Driven by a desire to help the people who came before him in court, Biebel said having so many people’s fates in his hands could get taxing. But he still loved doing the job he sought from the time he was in eighth grade.
“People have asked me, ‘If you’ve got 20,000-plus felony dispositions every year, don’t you get overwhelmed?’ ” he said. “The answer is, ‘Not if you take it one person at a time.’ ”
Biebel’s ability to recognize the potential for human redemption, Maldonado said, set a tone for the rest of the judges in the courthouse.
“Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity no matter what they’ve done or what they’re accused of,” Maldonado said. “It’s a lesson that flows from the top down.”
Chief Cook County Circuit Judge Timothy C. Evans said Biebel “effectively balanced the need to protect public safety with the need to protect the rights of the accused.”
“His legacy can be found among the many individuals who, with special court-ordered services and intensive supervision, are able to leave the criminal justice system and regain control over their lives,” Evans said in a statement.
Evans has not yet announced who will replace Biebel.
Though he won’t put a robe back on, Biebel plans to return to the courthouse periodically to chat with colleagues.
“But my wife wants to make sure I’m retired,” he said.
While he’s excited to spend time with his family and enjoy a new home in Tennessee with his wife Judy Pittman-Biebel — herself a retired Florida judge — he will miss the bustling court and all those he’s come to know and enjoy working with through the years.
“I have been fortunate to serve with outstanding judges,” he said. “I respect their work, and I believe my job was to support them in their endeavors — not to micromanage their activities.”
Peter Coolsen, Biebel’s court administrator and friend since second grade, said he’s enjoyed the 12 years he’s spent working with Biebel during an evolution in Cook County’s criminal justice system.
But it will be “very different,” Coolsen said, on the day he comes to work and Biebel won’t be on the other side of the presiding judge’s door.
“It’s the end of an era, so to speak, and the beginning of a new one.”