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Birkett eyes DuPage County judgeship
By Christy Gutowski | Daily Herald Staff

Joe Birkett


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Published: 8/24/2010 8:08 PM | Updated: 8/25/2010 1:56 PM

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DuPage County State's Attorney Joe Birkett, who has long eyed a judgeship, is considering seeking a soon-to-be vacant associate spot on the bench.

Birkett first told the Daily Herald in February he would not seek a fifth term as the county's top prosecutor, and most likely would vacate his elected position before his term ends in two years, if a suitable successor is tapped.

Birkett privately sought a DuPage County circuit spot last month after Judge Perry Thompson retired, but Illinois Supreme Court Justice Robert R. Thomas had promised the seat to Robert G. Gibson, a 27-year attorney.

Another vacancy is expected with DuPage County Associate Judge Joseph Bongiorno's retirement, effective Oct. 4. Birkett said he may apply for the spot once it is officially posted.

"I'm definitely interested," Birkett said Tuesday. "When it's posted, I'll sit down and talk to my wife and family. I love the law and want to finish my career on the bench but, at this point, it's premature and just courthouse chatter."

The 55-year-old Wheaton Republican is a 30-year prosecutor who, in the wake of two failed attempts at statewide office, has long spoken of his desire to ascend to an appellate or other high court bench.

Birkett said he turned down earlier offers because of his commitment to see through the prosecution of Brian Dugan, a triple convicted killer who a jury sent to death row last year for the 1983 abduction, rape and murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville.

The timing is now right, Birkett said. The Bongiorno vacancy will likely be a popular one. As of Jan. 1, legislation goes into effect that prevents "double dipping," the practice of current Illinois government employees simultaneously collecting a paycheck and a pension payment for earlier service.

The pension reform law is not retroactive, and new judges tapped before the Jan. 1 deadline are not affected. Of course, DuPage Chief Judge Stephen Culliton has the option of postponing the Bongiorno vacancy posting until after Jan. 1.

He and DuPage County's other circuit judges vote on Bongiorno's replacement, but Thomas as a local supreme court justice carries a lot of weight. His decision to swiftly steer the circuit seat to Gibson was seen by many courthouse observers as payback after circuit judges in March took a pass on Gibson for an open associate seat. They instead selected a favorite son, Michael A. Wolfe, a longtime assistant state's attorney who prosecuted some of the suburbs most heinous murderers.

One other factor sure to play into Birkett's decision is whether he'll have a say in tapping a successor. Birkett wants that person to be one of his prosecutors, not a politician.