Ethical concerns surround judges’ special access to COVID vaccine, jurist says

On February 17, every Cook County judge received a memo from Chief Judge Timothy Evans with the subject line “COVID-19 Vaccine.” In the memo, Evans repeatedly told judges that they do not qualify for priority vaccine access as “frontline essential workers.”

Evans said the Cook County Department of Public Health agreed to provide early vaccinations to any judges whose division head determined that they were “required to interact with inmates or juvenile detainees.” But, as it turned out, no judges were ever approved for special access under the program, Evans’ spokesperson said Monday.

Yet, the acting presiding judge of the traffic court division sent an email to 13 other judges on March 8 that invited them to receive the Pfizer vaccine at Loretto Hospital that evening. As part of a growing scandal involving vaccine access at Loretto, Judge Diann Marsalek told the email’s recipients that they could “bring a spouse or a second person” for vaccination, too, WBEZ reported.

Now, a sitting Cook County judge familiar with the vaccination controversy tells CWBChicago they believe there are ethical violations that need to be addressed. The judge asked not to be identified by name. Marsalek’s invite, in the face of Evans’ unequivocal memo, “creates an appearance of impropriety,” the judge said. “Evans has an obligation to address the matter.”

According to a press release issued by Evans’ office in January, traffic division hearings have been “handled entirely by teleconference or videoconference” during the COVID pandemic.

“There are no prisoners for traffic court,” the concerned judge told CWBChicago. “This group of judges [who received Marsalek’s email] are mostly very good people and good judges. But none of them deal with detainees or juveniles.”

“Marsalek knew none of the judges qualified,” the judge continued. “How was she privy to getting access to vaccines that she had to know weren’t allowed under any current guidelines? There may be ethical issues involved here. Judges are held to high ethical standards under Illinois Supreme Court rules.”

But Evans may not agree.

In a statement late last week, his spokesperson said, “judges under [age] 65 who have been able to get these shots violated no ethical rules, but acted in a responsible manner to protect themselves, their loved ones and the public, while not taking shots away from others.”

The statement also claimed that judges who received shots after responding to Marsalek’s invite on March 8 “were informed that the vaccines were already mixed and would be destroyed if not used by the end of the day.”

Dr. Allison Arwady, the head of Chicago’s Department of Public Health, rejected that notion: “This idea that somehow vaccine will go to waste, to justify jumping the line, it just is not true.”

And county health officials didn’t approve the line-jumping, either, a spokesperson for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said.

“We did not know nor authorize any judges to get vaccinated through Loretto or any other outlet. This was a decision made by the Office of the Chief Judge,” Preckwinkle’s representative said.

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CWBChicago was created in 2013 by five residents of Wrigleyville and Boystown who had grown disheartened with inaccurate information that was being provided at local Community Policing (CAPS) meetings. Our coverage area has expanded since then to cover Lincoln Park, River North, The Loop, Uptown, and other North Side Areas. But our mission remains unchanged: To provide original public safety reporting with better context and greater detail than mainstream media outlets. Our editorial email address is news@cwbchicago.com