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50-year-old bar association helped bring court activities to Cook County
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff

Cook County Circuit Court Judge James Geocaris Sr. worked with the Northwest Suburban Bar Association to establish a courthouse in Rolling Meadows.


Daniel White | Staff Photographer

Arlington Heights attorney and longtime NWSBA member Ernie Blomquist served as the association's president from 1986 to 1987.


Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

"It's a great honor to be able to practice law," says attorney Jack Owens, longtime member and former president of the Northwest Suburban Bar Association, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.


George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

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Published: 7/29/2010 12:30 AM

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More than 50 years ago, when farms dotted Northwest suburban Cook County, when villages like Schaumburg and Elk Grove Village were in their infancy, when the tollway system was a dream, the idea of speedy justice or the prompt resolution of disputes was an anomaly.

Before there was a courthouse in Rolling Meadows in 1989, attorneys and their clients typically traveled to Chicago's Criminal Courts building at 26th Street and California Avenue to litigate matters, while judges drove the circuit and presided over cases in whatever venue was handy, said Arlington Heights attorney Ernie Blomquist.

It was all very time consuming and inefficient until Donald Norman and the late William J. Moore, together with other suburban litigators, formed the Northwest Suburban Bar Association in 1960. It began as a professional support group with two dozen members who held their meetings at an Arlington Heights restaurant and bowling alley and at a Des Plaines Elks Club. Over the years, the NWSBA has emerged as a professional and political force with a membership of more than 650.

"We're loud. We're strong. And there's a lot of us," said Blomquist of the association, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

Since its inception NWSBA has expanded its public service mission, including providing lawyer referrals and free legal advice to residents representing themselves in court. But members say their greatest accomplishment is helping to establish the Third District courthouse in Rolling Meadows.

"The expansion of municipal jurisdiction into the suburbs was one of our big issues," said Jack Owens, NWSBA president from 1974-1975.

The state legislature's 1964 reorganization of the court system resulted in the establishment of Cook County's five suburban districts. The Third Municipal District initially called Park Ridge home. It later moved to building at the corner of Milwaukee and Touhy avenues in Niles.

But while Maywood, Markham and Skokie all had their own courthouses, the Third District had none. For years, NWSBA members and former Third District presiding Judge James Geocaris lobbied the chief judge for a northwest suburban courthouse.

Security, the need to centralize records and court services and the ability to detain defendants in custody made it a necessity, said Blomquist, who served as the NWSBA's president in 1986-1987.

In 1989, the efforts of Geocaris and the NWSBA paid off with the opening of the Rolling Meadows courthouse, a $60 million facility that houses 21 courtrooms.

For many years, the request by lawyers and judges for a Northwest suburban courthouse fell on deaf ears, said former Third District presiding Judge James Geocaris.

Judges traveling to municipalities to hold court, operating out of their cars

But the association's efforts don't stop at brick and mortar. Among the services the NWSBA provides to voters is the apolitical evaluation and recommendation of judicial candidates running for election or retention which the association releases before a general election.

"It's a thorough process," said Blomquist, adding members "spend thousands of man-hours culling through court records, disciplinary records and academic credentials" before issuing their recommendations.

Their opinions don't just benefit voters, said Owens.

One judge received a low rating from the association, said Owens, and although he was re-elected "he returned to the bar association and said 'I've learned a lesson.'" He changed the way he ran his courtroom and became a different judge, said Owens.

The NWSBA also hosts mock trial competitions for high school students, assists suburban Cook County residents with attorney referrals and offers free advice to suburban residents representing themselves. But the association has more work to do, say Blomquist and Geocaris, who want to establish a probate court in Rolling Meadows.

"We need a probate court in every district. Everybody will have a probate issue at some time," said Blomquist, adding that probate matters are adjudicated in Chicago.

Both attorneys would also like to see an expansion of the juvenile court, which currently operates one day a week in each district.

Beyond that, the NWSBA has an obligation to "keep up the quality of the administration of justice for the benefit of all the people," Geocaris said.

"We make the system accountable," said Blomquist of the NWSBA. "We make our opponents accountable. We make judges accountable. We fight for what's fair and just; if there's a breakdown in that, it affects all citizens."