Cook County Judge James Etchingham retired Monday after nearly 18 years on the bench.
Today he goes back to work, practicing law with his brother Joseph Etchingham in their newly established Arlington Heights firm, Etchingham Law.
He leaves what he describes as the greatest job in the world and the greatest calling in law with mixed emotions. But change is good, he says, and at 60, his energy and desire to help people hasn't diminished.
"Public service was always at the back of my mind," Etchingham said of his decision to become a judge.
But it came with a price. As a judge, "it's easy to make the popular decision," Etchingham said; the challenge is making the right one.
Presiding over trials like that of Elgin resident Jose Marquez, who doused his wife with lighter fluid and set her on fire, took its toll, admits Etchingham.
"You see terrible injuries. and you get frustrated with the cycle of violence," he said.
"Some cases haunt you," he said, referring to the 2007 case of Michael Giroux, 60, who stalked and killed his former girlfriend, Arlington Heights Realtor Cindy Bischof, then killed himself. Etchingham had granted Bischof's request for orders of protection against Giroux, imposed a high bond for infractions, and ordered Giroux held at Cook County jail for psychiatric evaluation.
He did all the law allowed. Still, he said, "You wonder, 'Is there more I could have done?'"
In retirement, Etchingham will receive 78 percent of his salary, or about $135,000, plus an annual 3 percent cost of living increase, after contributing 11 percent of his salary over his 18-year career.
Etchingham spent a year in sales before pursuing his lifelong passion for the law. After law school, he maintained a private practice and served as an assistant city attorney and prosecutor for Park Ridge and later for Norridge and Barrington. In 1980, he opened a firm with onetime adversary Sam Amirante until Amirante's appointment to the bench in 1988.
"He was the best partner a lawyer could have," said Amirante, who represented serial killer John Wayne Gacy. "In eight years we never argued one time. We certainly had legal arguments but never cross words."
Amirante was responsible for Etchingham meeting his wife, Beth, who worked on Amirante's failed bid for the state legislature in 1984. Married for 27 years, the couple have four sons, who are the reason for Etchingham's routine of driving a scooter to work. All the boys were about driving age when Etchingham faced a decision: buy a second car or buy a scooter to get from his Arlington Heights home to Rolling Meadows' 3rd Municipal District courthouse. He opted for the scooter.
"They're a great couple. She's as wonderful as he is," Amirante said of the Etchinghams, describing his former law partner as a tireless worker who's possessed of common sense and very careful.
"He does a lot of research before he makes a decision," Amirante said. "He wants to be very sure about what he does."
"He took his job as a judge seriously, but he didn't take himself seriously," Amirante continued. "Lawyers on both sides of the aisle will miss him tremendously."
Appointed to the bench by the Illinois Supreme Court in 1994, Etchingham started in traffic court and transferred to the Daley Center in Chicago. In 1995, the man he calls his mentor, former Rolling Meadows presiding judge James Geocaris Sr., invited him to the 3rd District.
"I knew he was smart enough," said Geocaris, who describes Etchingham as "one of the best judges in Cook County today."
"The thing I looked for was civility," said Geocaris who served 30 years on the bench, 20 as the 3rd District's presiding judge. "Temperament is the most important aspect of a judge, other than integrity. Give me a guy with good common sense, who's kind and treats people with respect."
Named an associate judge in 1998, Etchingham heard drug court cases and presided over preliminary hearings in Chicago before returning to Rolling Meadows where he heard felony cases and, for about five years, presided over domestic violence cases in Courtroom 207.
"I saw it as an opportunity to have an impact on people's lives in that room," said Etchingham, who carries with him a pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution.
"To sit in that room requires a sixth sense," Etchingham said. "The cases you're not sure of you have to look into (defendants') eyes, see their demeanor, probe their past, listen for signs of drug or alcohol dependence, anger issues or involvement with the police."
As a jurist, Etchingham was sympathetic when circumstances demanded and stern when circumstances demanded, said Judge Joel Greenblatt, who for several years filled in for Etchingham in domestic violence Courtroom 207 before taking over the call permanently about two years ago.
Greenblatt recalls a time off the bench when the "inveterate practical joker" donned oversize glasses attached to a nose and mustache.
Ultimately, Etchingham served the people of Cook County well, Greenblatt said, and will continue to do so in private practice.
"Jim can look back on his career as a judge and say he made a difference," said Greenblatt. "He recognizes, like we all do, that the chair is not ours. We are tenants. We lease it for a period of time."