Rock Island County's top judge, Walter Braud, defended his move late last month to solicit donations from Rock Island Bar Association and its members for an attorneys' lounge at the Annex being added to that county's justice center.
The respected chief judge of Illinois' 14th Circuit took the stage April 27 as an invited speaker and made his pitch at a Rock Island County Bar Association dinner.
"Donations in the amount requested, or more, will be recognized by a plaque displayed prominently in or near our Attorney's Lounge," reads a flier circulating among Rock Island County Bar Association members that highlights Braud's talking points.
Braud is seeking a $2,000 one-time donation from the Rock Island County Bar Association and $1,000 from individual firms and sole practitioners. He estimates $10,000 would be enough to outfit the lounge with furniture and technology. Checks should be mailed to Court Administrator Vicki Bluedorn, the flier says.
Braud's ask raised several eyebrows among those in attendance, with lawyers considering how donating, or failing to do so, might affect them in Rock Island County's courtrooms.
On Monday, Braud dismissed the accusations that he leaped head-first into treacherous ethical waters. Instead, those making an issue of his solicitation are most likely long-time opponents of the Annex altogether, he said.
"Clearly, there's someone with an ax to grind. It's probably someone that was against the courthouse from the beginning," Braud said, later adding that "a few Republican" lawyers have fought the expansion tooth-and-nail.
State ethics regulations permit him to seek cash from groups, but not individuals, Braud said. He's hoping the Rock Island County Bar Association undertakes the followup work with individual attorneys and firms.
A judge's public behavior is heavily regulated by Illinois Code of Judicial Conduct. Almost anything that might display bias, such as political activities, is either policed or barred altogether. Commonly known as the "Judicial Canon," the 71-article document — signed by every judge — explicitly bans most types of fundraising. It does, however, include exemptions for activities that "improve the law, the legal system and the administration of justice." It also polices public activism that might make a judge appear biased.
Asked if Braud's pitch posed ethical questions, Rock Island County Bar Association President Jonathan Fox responded, "I don't have a comment for you there."
Fox added that he can't gauge precisely how unusual Braud's approach was because he's "never been in a community before that's building a courthouse."
Fox said he's had no conversations about the Rock Island County Bar Association assuming a role in the fundraising push.
A spokeswoman for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan referred questions to the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission or Judicial Inquiry Board.
The Annex build-out has been a political flashpoint in Rock Island County for years. Braud's predecessor, former Chief Justice Jeffrey O’Connor, threatened to file a lawsuit against Rock Island County Board because its courthouse wasn't up to snuff. In 2015, Chief Justice Braud spearheaded the Annex idea through legal maneuvering of his own.
And it's Braud's proximity to the highly political Annex construction that has some attorneys in Rock Island wondering if they are victims of a shakedown.
Braud said he's merely trying to do right by the taxpayer while salvaging the exclusive lounge, which improves an attorney's performance in the courtroom.
"I'm running out of money," Braud said of the $28 million expansion. "Who gets cut?"