By Bonnie C. McGrath
After 19 years as a clerk in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Vernona Scotti got her first complaint. And it was a doozy. She almost lost her job.
"I was very hurt," she said over a late lunch from McDonald's at her desk outside the chambers of Judge Amanda Toney. The judge had a jury out, lawyers on other cases were popping in with questions, the phone was ringing.
"Yes, I am," Scotti said to a caller who asked her if she was in the middle of eating. "The best time to get me is between 12 and 1." She hung up.
A lawyer with a big smile walked in. "Oh no. Not you," Scotti said, rolling her eyes. "We don't have your case anymore. I threw it in the garbage. I don't ever want to see you again. And I'm not being mean."
The lawyer laughed. "I have a hearing here Friday. I've thought everything through. Won't you take this?" he pleaded with mock servility, handing her a copy of his brief. He was still laughing when he went out.
"He's been here on that case for 4,000 years," Scotti said, eyes still rolling. "I know that guy's case!"
A month ago a guy named Jim Kielty had jury duty. What he saw he didn't like. So he wrote Chief Judge Donald O'Connell a letter. He copied a few big shots, and he sent a copy to me. Kielty writes a lot of letters to public servants and politicians and newspapers about things he doesn't like. Like Ignatius J. Reilly, the cranky protagonist of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, Kielty observes things, sizes up situations, and causes trouble.
"I am writing to protest the actions of one of the bailiffs"--Scotti is actually a clerk--"in a courtroom of the Daley Center," he wrote. "I was a juror in this courtroom the morning of Tuesday, June 6, and was assigned to be among those for consideration in a case being heard by Judge Amanda Toney.
"The bailiff in the courtroom apparently considered herself a humorist and had gratuitous and even insulting comments for many of the would-be jurors assigned to take their places in the jury box and to hear questions from Judge Toney. One man of Asian descent repeatedly had to hear his name purposely mispronounced..."
"Insulting?" Scotti, who is black, winced. She turned to help a woman who stopped in with a bunch of case files and was trying to figure out why a certain case had been dropped. "I was caught trying to make people feel comfortable. I was trying to pronounce his name phonetically. That was taken as being offensive? Tomorrow we have a case coming in with a guy with this name," she said, showing me a file with a litigant whose first name was "Nazi." "Tomorrow I'll just call the case number. I would have had fun with the attorneys, but I can't do that anymore."
The deputy sheriff in Toney's courtroom knew all about the guy with the mispronounced name. "He was Filipino," said the deputy, "or from the islands or somewhere--maybe Fuji [sic]. One guy got offended; he got riled up and wrote a letter. But it wasn't the guy with the name. He wasn't offended at all."
Then the deputy stopped himself. "Actually, I'm not supposed to talk...because of those two guys." He meant the three sheriff's deputies recently charged in the beating death of Louis Schmude.
But then he began to reminisce about when he first got his job and was assigned to Judge Glynn Elliott's postjudgment collection courtroom.
"After I saw all those lawyers, I started paying bills I didn't even owe."
Then he stopped talking to let a jury into Judge Toney's courtroom to hear closing arguments in a fender-bender case in which the plaintiff was asking for $7,388.
There was more in Kielty's letter: "When the bailiff called my name and saw that I was of obvious Irish descent, she felt obliged to call attention to the fact. She asked something to the effect that if I lived in the Beverly area and if I were the one who refused her entry to a tavern this past St. Patrick's Day."
Scotti was incredulous. "I said he looked like a guy by a restaurant I go to," she said. "He took that as being offensive! How can I be prejudiced? He thinks I singled him out because he's Irish! I was just trying to be pleasant. If I was a bitch, none of this would have happened."
She handed Judge Toney some mail and some newspapers. Toney said she was in the paper. "You are?" said Scotti. "I didn't see it. I only read it when you're not here. I want your autograph. I want you to autograph it!"
Kielty also told O'Connell that Scotti "had other choice words for other jurors as well, calling one man...a 'fine looking gentleman.' He did not look all that flattered."
Scotti said that the father-in-law of an attorney she knew just happened to be on jury duty in the room that day. "He told his son-in-law how comfortable he was," she said. "The father-in-law went home and told his son-in-law that 'the clerk made everyone laugh.' His father-in-law said I got written up for being nice.
"I go to a church where everyone loves their neighbors," she continued. "On Father's Day a lady who just moved here from Tampa, Florida--a white lady--visited the church with three visitors from an exchange program. One was from Chile, one was from Germany, and one was from France, and my minister greeted each one in her foreign tongue. He said, 'Bonjour.' And 'Como se va' and he even knew German. He said 'How are you?' in German."
Kielty's letter ended like this: "I really don't think the courtrooms of the Daley Center should be the tryout room for would-be comics. If I were the bailiff that day and this woman presented herself for jury duty, I would not have asked her if she lived in 'K-Town.' I don't think jurors need to be talked down to in an insulting fashion. Get rid of the clowns. God knows you have enough on the bench already."
Scotti figures that Kielty was having a bad day and that's why he sent the letter. "I was just trying to be pleasant," she says. On June 26, Scotti began working in a different courtroom on the same floor. In her new job she's verifying court records, and she doesn't come in contact with jurors. She insists the move had nothing to do with the letter; she's been wanting this position for a while, she says. "It's very relaxing."