By DANA SPITZER
Swansea—The first thing a visitor notices when walking into Judy Cates’s law firm is a newspaper article framed on a wall. It’s about the largest single plaintiff jury verdict in history for a client who sued her employer for egregious sexual assault and harassment. The case was eventually settled and the woman who sued was satisfied that justice was served. The employer, a national furniture rental firm with a notorious record of sexual harassment toward its women employees, got a firm warning to “knock it off.”
The message to visitors who walk into her office is that Cates is a big league lawyer. In more than 30 years of practice, she has prosecuted some of the most notorious criminals in Southern Illinois.
She has successfully represented hundreds of workers injured at work.
One of her first clients was the family of a young father who was killed when a tire he was working on blew up. Another was a railroad worker who lost his leg when he fell under a railroad car. Her opponents have been some of the biggest corporations in the country. She handled a class action suit for a group of doctors who were being cheated by an insurance company on their reimbursement claims.
TOUGH ON CRIME
One key to her success, she believes, is that when she was a prosecutor, she went to the scene of a crime. “I saw places where people’s lives were shattered because of rape and murder. I was tough on crime.”
When she represented injured or poisoned workers, she went to their workplace. “I’ve been underground in a coal mine. I’ve been at the rail yards and inside of steel mills,” Cates said. Invariably, it paid off in getting a more realistic understanding of the crime or the accident, and it helped her do a better job in the courtroom. “I’ve handled a wide variety of cases over the years, “ she says. “I like the courtroom and will represent anybody who needs a good lawyer.”
Cates can be seen these days on the campaign trail throughout Southern Illinois, where she is running for a seat on the Fifth Judicial Appellate Court District, one of the top judicial positions in the state. The district covers 37 counties in Southern Illinois generally from south of Springfield to Cairo and bordering Missouri and Indiana.
Cates has been campaigning at union halls, county fairs and community festivals throughout the 37 counties over the past year. Earlier this year, she received the Illinois AFL-CIO COPE endorsement.
“This election is incredibly important, “ she explained in a recent interview with the Labor Tribune. “Decisions at the Appellate Court usually become precedent for the law of Illinois because so few decisions reach the state Supreme Court,” she said.
Moreover, while the Appellate Courts have seven judges, only three members of each court handle any individual case. Therefore, it really only takes two judges for a decision that affects the lives of millions of Illinois people.
The importance of the court demands that the judges who serve on it have enough experience to address the broad spectrum of law that they are required to address. Forty percent of the cases are criminal and the rest are civil.
‘A PLUS’ RATING
Cates believes her 30 years in the courtroom gives her that experience. She points out that she gets an A plus rating from Martindale Hubbell, the prestigious legal information firm that ranks the quality of lawyers and law firms throughout the United States.
Her Republican opponent, Steve McGlynn, cannot match her experience, she says. He was the co-chair of the state Republican Party, which gives him a built-in political network for his campaign and access to lots of “big time” money from the business community – and not just in Southern Illinois, but from around the state and country. He will be tough to beat.
Cates says she hopes to win simply by out-campaigning her opponent. She expects to be outspent. If she wins, it won’t be the first big obstacle she has overcome in her career. “I’m a very competitive person,” she says.
She grew up in Belleville, the daughter of a small business owner and a school teacher. When she graduated from Washington University Law School in 1978, she began her career as an Assistant State’s attorney. She prosecuted violent criminals and learned the satisfaction of helping keep communities safe.
When she decided to enter private practice, she hung out a shingle on her own in a small office and built a reputation that caught the eye of Rex Carr, a legendary trial lawyer in metro-east legal circles with a national reputation. Carr offered her a job. She began representing injured workers and building a career and a reputation.
TOP LAWYER IN U.S.
In 2006, she was elected President of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association. The American Trial Lawyers Association later ranked her among the top 100 trial lawyers in the country. She is also ranked one of the top 50 women lawyers in Illinois.
Cates has been campaigning for over a year. “This is really important to me,” she says, “because of the court’s importance to the people of Illinois. The court requires the best of what the legal community can provide.
“I understand what working men and women need from the law. I have tried complex cases throughout Southern Illinois and believe my experience qualifies me to give a fair and just hearing to anyone whose case should come before the Appellate Court.”