(Chicago, IL) — The Honorable Paul P. Biebel, Jr., who received TASC’s Justice Leadership Award in December, has been named February’s Inspiring Innovator by Chicago Lawyer Magazine.
Below is an excerpt from the magazine’s February 1 issue:
In 2001, Chief Judge Donald O’Connell appointed Biebel as presiding judge of the Criminal Division.
“I did so because of his excellent credentials having served as both the public defender and as a prosecutor as well as his vast experience in high stakes cases as a private lawyer,” O’Connell said. “I had been a friend of Paul’s for many years and had every confidence in his abilities and his reputation as an eminently fair judge, with a balanced and unbiased approach.”
At the time, Biebel told the Chicago Tribune he was surprised by O’Connell’s appointment, saying, “Obviously, this is a great challenge and one that I look forward to. I know many of the judges I’ll be working with in the criminal court and I have great respect for them.”
That respect and the balanced approach O’Connell praised, would win over countless others working in the county’s criminal court system.
Daniel Coyne, a criminal law professor at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, focused on county felony court issues for many years when Biebel assumed the top position.
He made an appointment to meet with Biebel shortly after he took the bench at 26th Street and California Avenue. Biebel told Coyne that he set some goals for the court and for the system — thoughts on how to define and administer justice in more effective, efficient ways, Coyne said…
Coyne said he walked out of the meeting cautiously optimistic, unsure if he received “some sort of a party line.”
“I thought this sounds really nice, but I’ve heard this before,” he said.
The following day, Biebel called Coyne wanting to continue meeting on ways to make his courts more effective and beneficial to defendants’ lives, Coyne said.
“That was the beginning of a very long, fruitful — for a large percentage of the defendants — relationship,” Coyne said.
The two continue to work well together on ways to expand the county’s specialty court services, Coyne said.
Pamela Rodriguez, president of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities (TASC) — a nonprofit that provides legal case management for people with mental health and substance use problems — described a strikingly similar experience of meeting with Biebel.
Within a month of Biebel’s appointment in 2001, Rodriguez said she too made an appointment with the judge to introduce herself and feel out what his approach may be in overseeing the courts. She said she figured it would be a friendly meeting of the minds, not necessarily a time to pitch a project.
She found Biebel approachable and open-minded enough that she began talking about an idea of a felony mental health court.
“Maybe he asked two questions before he said, ‘Sure, let’s do it,'” Rodriguez said.
It was not lip service.
Biebel and Rodriguez met with various local and national officials, from professors, judges and experts from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, to discuss what he and the county needed to do for a mental health court.
“I’ve tried to educate myself for the nearly 12 years since I’ve had this job on the issues of mental health and substance abuse issues,” Biebel said.
The Cook County Felony Mental Health Court opened in May 2004 and became one of the first such felony specialty courts in the country, Rodriguez said.
“We’re giving people an opportunity to regain their lives from the ravages of drugs, of mental illness, if they’re willing to allow us to help them,” Biebel said. “We have been marvelously successful in that endeavor. Certainly, it’s one of the things I’m proud of.”
Please see full story by Christine Kraly, photos by Natalie Battaglia, and the Law Bulletin Publishing Company’s video here.