John Christopher Benson
Democratic candidate for Cook County Circuit (8th Subcircuit (Fabri Vacancy district)
Responses to our questions
Please submit an essay that explains your legal background, why you are qualified for this position and why you seek this position.
I have been handling complex criminal and civil cases in both state and federal court for almost 30 years.
I served as a Cook County Assistant Public Defender for 14 years, during which time I saw firsthand the injustices suffered by minorities in the criminal justice system, and the long-term consequences that family structures suffer as a result.
I left the Cook County Public Defender's Office in 2003 to become Director of Criminal Law at Cabrini Green Legal Aid because I felt that the best way to mitigate the impact of injustice on minority groups was to focus on individual clients who were innocent of the charges or who were minimally involved in the conduct that led to the charge, but who had strong family, community, religious, or other support systems that made it unlikely that they would return to the criminal justice system.
I led a team of attorneys and volunteers in a client selection process to ensure that Cabrini Green focused its limited resources on representation of individuals who were unlikely to become involved in the criminal justice system in the future. During that time, I litigated multiple, complex criminal cases, including murder, armed robbery, and attempt murder.
Now in private practice, I focus on civil rights, criminal defense, and child protection cases. During a recent federal civil rights case on behalf of four plaintiffs who each spent more than 15 years in prison for a rape and murder they did not commit (referred to as the "Englewood Four" case), I was involved in approximately 90 depositions of both expert and non-expert witnesses. Although money cannot repair the psychological and social damage the Englewood Four plaintiffs suffered and will continue to suffer throughout their lives, our team recently settled that case with the City of Chicago for almost $32 million, ensuring that the plaintiffs have the financial support needed to rebuild their lives.
To date, my career has offered me the opportunity to gain the broad-based legal experience and the complex criminal and civil trial experience necessary to be a strong judge within the Cook County Circuit Court. I was certified as a member of the Illinois Capital Litigation Trial Bar, as lead counsel, and have represented four men charged with capital murder; attorneys certified must meet certain standards of experience and ethics.
I have litigated the insanity defense to the charge of first degree murder, as well as other charges. I have represented a significant number of clients in jury trials during which medical expert testimony and testimony regarding DNA evidence were critical elements of the case, allowing me to hone my direct examination and cross examination skills with respect to highly qualified experts. I have presented oral arguments before the Illinois Supreme Court in a tax case.
I have represented clients in administrative hearings before the Chicago Human Resources Board, the Illinois Department of Motor Vehicles, and the Department of Children and Family Services. I have also handled forfeiture cases, in which either the State of Illinois or the U.S. Government seized cash from citizens without charging them with crimes.
Most importantly, my experiences have helped me to develop compassion, which I believe is necessary to serve as a fair adjudicator of disputes. For example, through my representation of clients in the criminal and child welfare systems, I have come to understand that individuals with mental health conditions and their families are hit hard on multiple fronts -- They often simultaneously navigate the underfunded mental health care system, the child welfare system, and the criminal justice system. Such prospects are daunting, particularly for those families without sophisticated legal representation.
At the same time, victims of crimes committed by the mentally ill suffer greatly. Moreover, my lifelong work as a public servant also helped me develop compassion. I joined the American Peace Corps upon graduation from college and spent the next four years in the Yemen Arab Republic. I lived and worked in Sana'a, and, one day a week, I volunteered to work in an orphanage operated by Mother Teresa, where I bathed and fed orphaned children and disabled adults. In Yemen, I saw poverty and polio, but also the harsh outcomes produced by a society that did not support its most vulnerable and underprivileged members.
This experience fueled my work as an assistant public defender and at Cabrini Green Legal Aid, even when my tasks seemed daunting. While several of my opponents for the Cook County Circuit Court Judge, 8th Subcircuit have previously been appointed by the Illinois Supreme Court to judicial vacancies, I do not believe that these prior appointments should be determinative.
Instead, I believe that the 8th Subcircuit voters have the right to determine which candidates best represent their overall perspectives about how the court system in Cook County should operate. In speaking with many members of the public during the petition process, I believe that my diverse legal background aligns with the demands and perspectives of 8th Subcircuit voters.
Moreover, all of the bar groups that have screened me to date have found me either qualified or recommended to be a judge. The Chicago Counsel of Lawyers found that I have good temperament; they noted my strong legal background and substantial litigation experience in a variety of matters. I want to serve as a Cook County Circuit Court judge because I love courts, and I believe in the mission of the court system — fair, impartial adjudication of a community's disputes.
I truly enjoy engaging with lawyers who are working through complicated disputes with devotion to both compassion and cause. I admire and want to be a lifelong participant in a disciplined system that takes complex, often emotional disputes, and through the disciplined work of dedicated professionals, seeks to resolve those disputes fairly.
Tell us something we would be surprised to learn about you.
I am about to become a first-time father late in life. Through my work in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems, I became intimately familiar with the difficulty that the child welfare system has in placing older children in permanent homes. Having both come from stable, loving, two-parent families, my wife and I decided that offering the same environment to an older child who was having difficulty finding a permanent placement was something that we could do. As such, after much reflection, we are fostering-to-adopt a 12-year-old boy. The challenges have been significant, as the child has had an unstable, traumatic history. However, we expect the long-term rewards to be great, as we hope to watch his life trajectory change from one of struggle and poverty to one of success and contribution to society.