By Robert Loerzel
A few years ago, when Warren D. Wolfson was an Illinois Appellate Court judge, he was struck by something one of his fellow judges said.
"I was having coffee with a bunch of my colleagues at the courthouse," he said. "We were talking about lawyers coming into court and telling lies."
What sort of lies? How about lawyers making excuses for showing up late in court?
According to Wolfson, one of the other judges, Alan J. Greiman, remarked: "Ah, they're just 11th-floor lies." He was referring to the 11th floor of the Richard J. Daley Center, where judges hear the sort of small cases that never make newspaper headlines. Wolfson asked Greiman what he meant.
"He said, 'Well, everybody knows he's lying, but nobody cares.' I said, 'Wow, that's really something. I'd never thought about that.' So I went upstairs and wrote a poem."
On that occasion, writing poetry was Wolfson's way of commenting on how easily people shrug off white lies - even in a courtroom, where finding the truth is supposed to be the ultimate goal.
Wolfson called the poem "Eleventh Floor Lies." In the last stanza, he wrote: "The lies are lost, replaced by other lies. We pretend and we proceed . ."
Printed in the literary journal Rattle , it was Wolfson's first published poem. Wolfson, who retired from the bench last year and was appointed interim dean of DePaul University College of Law, began writing verse in the 1950s, when he was a student at the University of Illinois. But he didn't seriously pursue poetry until recently.
"I never showed it to anybody until maybe four or five years ago," he said. "I was just always concerned that somebody would say, 'That's junk.' I wrote for a living as an appellate court judge and as a judge. I didn't mind people reading [my opinions] and criticizing it. But a poem's different. You put your life on the line."
He received encouragement from his wife, Lauretta Higgins Wolfson, a Cook County Circuit judge, and their friend, Deborah Cummins, who serves on the Poetry Foundation's board of trustees.
"So I started sending it out," Wolfson said. "I got very, very lucky. I hit a journal called Rattle . It was really one of the first I sent to. ... It was Sunday morning when the editor called and woke me up. The phone rings and I think something's wrong. I got on and she said, 'I just couldn't wait until Monday to tell you we loved your poem and we're going to publish it.'"
Since then, literary journals have published 16 poems by Wolfson, including a batch of seven in the new issue of Legal Studies Forum.
"The thing that I like about his poetry is that it feels like you're in the room with a man who knows something," said James R. Elkins, a law professor at West Virginia University who edits Legal Studies Forum . "The meaning of his poems is not elusive, and you don't come away scratching your head. At the same time, there isn't a sentimental note in it. It also has a very light whimsical or humorous turn to it."
Observers who followed Wolfson's 33-year career on the bench won't be surprised that he has a way with words. As an Illinois Appellate Court judge, he prided himself on writing clear, concise opinions.
"Some justices talk in circles for pages and pages before they get to the issue at hand and how they are ruling on it. But not ... Warren Wolfson," Chicago Sun-Times reporter Abdon M. Pallasch wrote in 2006. "Lawyers call Wolfson the best writer of opinions in Chicago."
Wolfson, who received a bachelor's degree in journalism before he studied law, said he always tried to avoid legal jargon in his opinions.
"I used short, simple sentences, which I learned in journalism - how to communicate," he said. "My target audience in everything I wrote was an intelligent human being, no matter what he did for a living. He didn't have to be a lawyer or a judge."
One of the highest-profile cases Wolfson handled was a dispute about whether the state was required to issue a gambling license to the Emerald Casino.
"The opinion had to do with what the legislature meant when it used the word 'shall,'" he said.
"It's all over the place. Sometimes it's mandatory, sometimes it isn't."
So when Wolfson ruled in 2003 that the state was indeed required to issue the license, he began his opinion by writing: "The law is clear: 'Shall' means shall, except when it doesn't."
Greiman, who has known Wolfson since law school, said, "He's a great writer. To begin the opinion so that you think, 'Hey, I've got to read this' - he has a great talent for doing that. He's just known as a fair, straight judge. That's the best thing you can say about him."
As a boy growing up on Chicago's West Side, Wolfson saw many police officers, lawyers and judges hanging out at the Bureau Grill, a restaurant Wolfson's father ran at 11th and State streets, near a police station. He recalls going into the municipal courtroom there and watching as a judge angrily lectured police officers about violating a defendant's constitutional rights.
"I thought that was just the greatest thing I ever saw," Wolfson said. "And I thought to myself, 'Boy, I'd like to do that one day' - never thinking it could possibly happen. We were never involved in politics or anything, and that was the name of the game in those days."
After studying both journalism and law, Wolfson decided he liked practicing the law more than reporting about it. As a criminal defense attorney in Chicago, he defended protesters who had fought with police at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, including a man who sat on the statue of Gen. John Logan waving a Viet Cong flag.
Wolfson also defended members of the Black Panthers, the Weathermen and Students for a Democratic Society. He won an acquittal for Brian Flanagan, who was charged with attempted murder after a clash that left former Cook County Sheriff Richard Elrod paralyzed.
"A few people said, 'Are you crazy? How can you represent these people?'" Wolfson said. "They needed representing. These people were really getting pushed around, and they were hated. ... The Flanagan case was an acquittal, because the police case against him was absolute hokum. It was all manufactured."
Working for controversial clients didn't hurt Wolfson's career. A few years later, he represented Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley when the mayor was facing a federal investigation.
"Daley took a liking to me," Wolfson said. "I expressed my ambitions to be a judge."
Not long after that, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Walter Schaefer called Wolfson, offering him an appointment to fill a vacancy in the Cook County Circuit Court.
Wolfson was appointed in 1975, won the election to stay in the position in 1976, and remained a circuit court judge until 1994. From 1994 to 2009, he served in the Illinois Appellate Court's 1st District.
In 1997, Wolfson ordered a new hearing for Darrell Cannon, who had been convicted of murder in 1983. Cannon said he'd been tortured by Chicago police officers in Area 2's violent crimes unit. The alleged torture didn't leave any bruises on Cannon, but Wolfson ruled that bruises aren't the only sort of evidence that might prove torture.
Looking back on that case now, Wolfson said, "We can't reward careful torture."
Cannon ended up pleading guilty to lesser charges and serving in prison until 2007. But Wolfson's ruling opened the door to a wider investigation of torture allegedly committed by Chicago police officers - a controversy that lingers today.
Wolfson retired from the bench last year when DePaul asked him to serve as dean of the law school for two years. By taking the job, he was stepping into a tense situation. DePaul fired the previous dean, Glen Weissenberger, who had complained about the way DePaul finances the law school.
"There was a bit of a furor," Wolfson said. "The university ... wanted someone who could smooth over the waters but still move the school ahead."
Sixteen tenured law professors wrote a letter to the American Bar Association, complaining that they hadn't been consulted about the decision to appoint Wolfson.
He acknowledged that not everyone is happy that he's dean, but he said he's getting along well with most of the faculty. One law professor, speaking on condition of anonymity, said faculty members are now focused on the question of who will replace Wolfson when his two-year stint ends.
"We're just waiting to get a new one," the professor said.
Wolfson, who had been an adjunct faculty member at Chicago-Kent College of Law for 39 years, said he's impressed with DePaul's commitment to the mission of St. Vincent DePaul.
"It's a mission of public service, social justice," he said. "They take it very seriously, and it's really meaningful."
As Wolfson tries to guide DePaul's law professors and students toward that mission, he continues to write poetry in his spare time. As different as poems are from court decisions, Wolfson says both kinds of writing demand clarity.
"The ability to communicate clearly and yet challenge is something that you try to do in poetry," he said. "I don't believe in being intentionally vague."
Here are some of Warren D. Wolfson's poems:
Eleventh Floor Lies
This is a place
where minor matters are decided.
Here, on the eleventh floor of the courthouse,
I conduct a reluctant venue
for lawyers. Only small injustices occur.
I demand explanations. Tardiness is unacceptable.
The lawyers tell me lies about
where they were and when they left. No one,
certainly not I, believes the lies.
If they were dropped on a scale
they would barely press.
Still, I accept the lies. We must
get on with it. Cases are called
and I decide them. Someone wins
and someone loses. The number of people
in the courtroom remains the same,
but the faces change.
The lies are lost, replaced by other lies.
We pretend and we proceed. People leave
with more or less of something.
Decisions require words. At times
I look up from papers, to the wall.
On the wall I see: In God We Trust.
A power failure blamed on a cat shut down the Cook County Criminal Courts building Monday.
- Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, 9/26/03
Let's not blame the cat.
He, if he was a he,
had a right to find
a warm, safe place
to rest until dark.
The cat did not know
the white powder was dropped
at the detective's feet,
or placed for finding
on the car's cold bright leather seat.
The cat did not see
what the worried witness saw-
the hooded man running
after firing the bullet
that ended an unfulfilled life.
The cat did not commit
the stickups or burglaries
or aggravated sexual assaults
or any of the other ways
men and women find to offend.
The courts closed for a day.
No trial, no prison term,
no decision to kill a killer-
a restful 24 hours.
Then it all started again.