BY BRIAN L. HUCHEL email@example.com
---- — DANVILLE — Sitting in the most revered seat of a courthouse doesn’t preclude Vermilion County Judge Michael Clary from showing a level of respect to legal representatives who come before him, no matter what the case.
From mothers or fathers losing their parental rights to defendants convicted of heinous crimes, Clary said he makes it a point to look the person in the eye when handing down his final decision.
“It can be very difficult,” he said. “I’ve always felt over the years they were entitled to me looking them in the eye and say this is your sentence or say the state has proved their case, your parent rights are terminated.
“It’s easier not to look them in the eye and maybe make that pronouncement some other way, but I feel that in those particular situations if there’s a person and I’m going to sentence them in my courtroom I need to look them in the eye when I tell them that,” he said.
“I think it’s their life, they’re entitled to it.”
Clary, after 34 years working in the local legal community, confirmed he has decided to step down from the bench effective Oct. 31. He has served as presiding circuit judge in the Vermilion County Circuit Court for the last four years.
Hired by the Vermilion County State’s Attorney’s Office in 1979, Clary’s career has run the gamut from assistant prosecutor to private practice attorney before running in the 1988 election for the office of state’s attorney. A failed bid was followed in 1992 with Clary successfully being elected as the county’s chief prosecutor.
Clary said his mind focused mainly on the job at hand as he considered the 1990s a more violent time than today, with a total of 36 people charged with first-degree murder during his six years as state’s attorney.
But when the county was approved for an additional resident judge’s position in 1998, Clary obtain a seat on the bench. He said there have been “no complaints” since then. But, as with every new job, there was a transition for the longtime attorney.
“When you’re in private practice or a prosecutor, you’re an advocate, so you have a position you are trying to convince someone to take, whether it’s the judge or jury, you’re trying to convince someone you’re right,” Clary said.
“But as judge, you’re on the receiving end of that,” he added. “You can’t be an advocate for either side. You have to listen. There have been times — jury trials particularly — when I listen to the closing arguments for the lawyers and I’m thinking ‘Why didn’t you say this, why didn’t you say that. You forgot about this one key piece of evidence that you should be hammering at the jury.’
“I still have those thoughts, but you have to set aside your personal feelings for the law of the Constitution.”
During his tenure on the bench, Clary has done more than hand down legal decisions. He was involved in the creation of a felony drug court, family drug court and mental health court. He has also seen the court’s continual transition into the modern age with the use of cameras in the courtroom as well as instant messaging and Facebook regularly tendered as pieces of evidence in cases.
Clary has handled a range of cases both as a private attorney, county prosecutor and as circuit judge. Despite the litany experiences, he said his preference lies in the area of criminal law and civil tort law.
While judge, Clary has experienced unique cases, such as declaring a 16-year-old girl in existence so she could obtain her driver’s license. The girl, who was born and home and had been home schooled, was “completely under the radar” with regard to documentation of her existence, Clary said, adding that the midwife who helped deliver the girl was called to testify in the case.
While occasional cases can be unique, there are many more that force a judge to make decisions on the fly in a pressure-packed environment.
“I don’t know of any other job where everything you say is written down and recorder,” he said. “You have to go on the fly and make decisions and rulings on objections and motions without taking a great deal of time to go ponder it.”
Occasionally, the decisions are met with unhappy parties, such as the case where family members of a murdered woman picketed the courthouse in protest of the bond Clary set for the suspect arrested in the case.
“When you’re deciding a case, yes, there is a lot of pressure,” he said. “It’s not your job to please the parties or the media or to please anybody. It’s your job just to decide the case and make the right decision based on the law and the factors presented.”
Clary cites that pressure as one of the reasons for his decision to step down from the bench at the end of October.
“You get to a point where you feel like you don’t want to have that much pressure,” he said. “I have other things I’d like to do. I like to building things and I have a big honey-do list.
“I want to pursue those interests while I’m in good health and able to do it,” Clary added.
At this point, Clary said he has no plans to return to private practice as an attorney although that is not set is stone and the possibility is always there.