A Democratic Party-backed judge who won re-election in November while facing battery charges was found not guilty Monday–by reason of insanity.The insanity verdict could aid the judge’s effort to return to the bench.
Not long after Judge Cynthia Brim was charged in March with misdemeanour battery for shoving a deputy outside the Daley centre, a panel of supervising judges effectively suspended her, banning Brim from the county’s courthouses without a police escort.
Bar associations have recommended since 2000 that Brim be tossed from her $182,000-a-year job, but voters have kept returning her to the bench. Experts have said Brim’s case highlights the difficulty of unseating a judge up for retention in Cook County.
On Monday, less than a year after the judge embarked on what attorneys described as a delusional journey across the city that ended with her in handcuffs, Brim sat at a wooden table marked “Defendant” on the 13th floor of the Daley centre for a highly unusual bench trial.
Testimony revealed that Brim has been hospitalized five times after suffering mental breakdowns in the 18 years since she was first elected. In 2004, Brim was carried off the bench at a suburban courthouse after she froze while addressing her courtroom before starting the day, standing mute until someone called paramedics, her attorney said.
Brim, 54, was diagnosed years ago with a bipolar type of schizoaffective disorder, which means she experiences delusions and hallucinations, psychiatrist Mathew Markos testified. The symptoms can be kept in check with medication, he testified.
Prosecutors argued that Brim was “criminally responsible” for her actions last spring as she had chosen once again to stop taking her medications. Her attorney said a psychiatrist had advised her to only take the drugs when she needed to.
“She made the choice, despite numerous hospitalizations, to go off her medications,” Assistant State’s Attorney Maria Burnett said.
DuPage County Judge Liam Brennan — who was brought in to hear the case — said his verdict is separate from the larger question of Brim’s fitness to be a judge. The state’s Judicial Inquiry Board is investigating Brim for multiple alleged violations of the code of professional responsibility, an inquiry that could ultimately end with her removal from the bench, her attorney James Montgomery said.
“This is not about the wisdom of allowing this defendant to serve as a judge,” Brennan said.
Legal expert Warren Wolfson, who spent 15 years as a trial judge, said the board will want to be sure that Brim is capable of performing her duties on the bench. The board would consider other incidents as well, including the disruption in her own courtroom.
“The issue is whether she has the ability to perform her duties,” Wolfson said.
Brim’s November re-election campaign was backed by the Cook County Democratic Party as well as the Committee for Retention of Judges in Cook County, a campaign committee funded by judges. Judges need 60 per cent of the vote to be retained; failing to meet that mark is rare.
On March 8, Brim was asked to leave the Markham courthouse after going on a tirade while presiding over traffic court, sources told the Tribune last year. The next day, she read a newspaper story about a Cook County judge who was using lots of sick leave and decided to complain to the judicial board, which disciplines judges, about what she viewed as an unfair story.
But she took the wrong bus and ended up on 47th Street, so she decided to make a “march for justice” up to the board’s Loop offices, Markos said. After walking more than 5 miles, she at some point went to her attorney’s building, but got off at the wrong floor and refused to leave a different attorney’s offices, Montgomery said.
That attorney later filed a complaint with the Judicial Inquiry Board, he said.
Brim also went to the Daley centre. After standing in the lobby for about 15 minutes, she asked deputies if any keys had been left at the security station that day, officers testified.
She then left with a set of keys and returned a few minutes later, throwing her own keys on the floor as a protest against the unjust judicial system, Montgomery said. Deputy Nicholas Leone testified that he noticed Brim’s set included special security keys for opening courtrooms and judge’s chambers in the building.
“I wanted to know why a civilian had those keys,” Leone said.
Brim was walking east on Randolph Street and ignored requests from Deputy Herbert Edwards to stop, he testified.
Edwards said he finally stepped in front of her and stood his ground before she reached Dearborn Street, and that’s when she shoved him, he testified. The judge was then taken to the lockup in the Daley centre’s basement.
Sheriff’s police began calling other judges to come help after Brim, who was identified as a judge, would not answer questions, Montgomery said.
Eventually Judge Pamela Hill-Veal, who is Brim’s cousin, came to the lockup and answered questions for Brim, telling police Brim had no history of mental illness, Deputy Deborah Salzman testified. Hill-Veal even helped Brim sign her name on a medical questionnaire, Salzman said.
A message left for Hill-Veal after Monday’s verdict was not returned.
Brim, who declined to comment, looked displeased after Brennan’s verdict.
“Obviously she’s not happy with the fact that she still has to undergo further evaluation to determine if she is in need of further mental treatment,” said Montgomery, who noted Brim is already undergoing treatment.
For Sheila Murphy, the former presiding judge at the Markham courthouse, the issue is clear: Brim needs help.
Murphy has worked with the Lawyers’ Assistance Program, which helps attorneys and judges with mental health and substance abuse issues, for more than three decades. Although Murphy said she knew of no other judge to have been found not guilty by reason of insanity, she said other judges have mental health issues for which they take medication.
“Judges are human beings. We get physically sick and have mental health issues like anybody else,” said Murphy, who also is an adjunct professor at John Marshall Law School.
“The biggest issue is whether a judge can be responsive to the issues that come before him or her and can hear testimony and give it thought,” she said. “But you have to have the mental state to do that. If you don’t, you’re going to have problems.”
“Why shouldn’t she be able to recover like anybody else with good doctors and valid assessments?” Murphy said.
Brim is scheduled to return to court March 15 for a hearing on her mental health treatment.
Tribune reporter Steve Mills contributed.
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