CHICAGO (CN) — The Cook County clerk should not be bound by decades-old federal consent decrees meant to curb hiring and firing decisions based on political affiliations, her attorney argued before a Seventh Circuit panel Tuesday.
The recent allegations against Clerk Karen Yarbrough are part of a 50-year-old lawsuit that helped to stymie political corruption in Chicago.
Filed in 1969 by attorney Michael L. Shakman and several other plaintiffs, the complaint sought, through an injunction, to put an end to the cronyism that Chicago and Cook County are notorious for.
Shakman was running as an independent candidate to be a delegate to the 1970 Illinois Constitutional Convention and knew he didn’t stand a chance against the Democratic Party machine headed by former Mayor Richard J. Daley.
“It’s been so long since this thing started that people forget or weren’t around when Chicago was a one-party state,” Shakman, who is still an attorney with his firm Miller, Shakman, Levine & Feldman in Chicago, told Courthouse News.
If you wanted to work for the city or Cook County at the time, you had to know someone and agree to support the party. Jobs and promotions were handed out to friends, family and political supporters, and those who refused to work for the party were demoted or fired.
Shakman said this created “a massive army of patronage workers who got their jobs and could only keep them if they did political work.”
As a “young volunteer working in the precincts,” Shakman said he saw public employees campaigning and fundraising for the Democrats who ran the city, and was told by a city worker during his own campaign for delegate that he wanted to support him but had to work for his Democratic opponent because of his job.
“One of the ways the old patronage system worked was keeping available jobs a secret…you had to know someone,” Shakman said.
There was even a patronage office in a hotel downtown, where prospective employees had to take letters of recommendation from those in power before getting handed a spot.
“In a sense it was completely above board,” Shakman added.
The city’s 50 aldermen, only two of which were not Democrats at the time, “took their marching orders literally from the mayor and that was because of the patronage system,” he said.
The judge, who according to Shakman happened to be Mayor Daley’s old roommate in Springfield, threw the case out but the Seventh Circuit remanded it.
Eventually the case was closed thanks to several consent decrees, known as the “Shakman decrees,” barring political hiring and firing, but monitoring and managing compliance with the decrees has gone on for the five decades since.
The decrees stipulate that government departments cannot make employment decisions for political reasons with the exception of some exempt positions, cannot change the list of exempt positions without court approval and must publicly post all job openings.
Up until the early 2000s, Shakman says, compliance with the decrees “operated on the honor system.”
The defendants in the lawsuit, including the city, Illinois governor, county clerk and sheriff, all sent in their own reports and “there was no real oversight beyond that,” he said.
The turning point was a federal investigation into hired trucks being used for things like snow removal and deliveries. Everyone getting contracts had political connections, and it was eventually found that the patronage system was alive and well being run through the so-called Office of Intergovernmental Cooperation.
Special masters were appointed to watch over city and county departments starting in 2006, Shakman said, and “only that way did it start to become possible to see what was going on.”