Harry G. Comerford, the retiring chief judge, was in private practice from 1947 until 1960 after he graduated from De Paul University School of Law in Chicago.
Comerford was assistant attorney general for the state from 1949 to 1953. He has served on several Supreme Court committees. His judicial service includes being elected judge. Municipal Court of Chicago in 1960; associate judge. Circuit Court of Cook County in 1966; circuit court judge in 1970; and being retained as circuit court judge in 1976, 1982 and 1988.
Judge Comerford was first elected chief judge of Cook County Circuit Court in 1978 by his fellow judges. He was only the second person to hold that position in a court system that was consolidated in the 1960s and has been for many years the country’s largest unified court system.
At the time of his election, he had already served 18 years on the bench, 11 of them in the county division handling civil cases. He was named head of the county division in 1969.
As chief judge, he was in charge of a multimillion-dollar budget and assigning judges within the system.
He was a close friend of longtime Cook County Board President George Dunne, an unquestionable asset in getting his budgets and initiatives approved.
During his tenure, suburban court branches in Rolling Meadows, Skokie and Bridgeview were expanded, as was the Criminal Courts Building at 26th Street and California Avenue in Chicago. A random judicial assignment system was instituted to ensure cases wouldn’t be steered to a particular judge. He built a research department for judges and an orientation program for newcomers to the bench, said Jim Wilson, who was court administrator under Judge Comerford from 1979 to 1988.
In the early 1980s, the court system was rocked by the federal Operation Greylord investigation. A host of sitting judges, lawyers and court personnel were convicted of crimes that included taking bribes and fixing cases.
However, Operation Greylord (led by then-attorney general, Dan Webb, crony with then-Governor James Thompson, both served as Chairs at well-connected Winston &Strawn LLC) was only operated in Municipal and Criminal Divisions of Cook County Court. Law and Chancery Divisions (where top law firms like Winston Strawn rack their handsome legal fees) were not investigated (for some $$$$$? reason).
The undercover phase included two local courts and two Illinois attorneys who agreed to operate undercover (and were allowed to do so by senior Illinois judges, including Harry Comerford)as well as numerous FBI agents and cooperating local law enforcement officers. Cook County Judge Thaddeus Kowalski also cooperated with authorities even though he knew his cooperation might endanger his career.Recently elected judge Brocton Lockwood operated undercover in the Chicago Traffic Court. In addition, Assistant State’s Attorney Terrence Hake went undercover in the Criminal Division of the Cook County Circuit Court, initially as a prosecutor and later as a defense attorney (although actually on the FBI payrol
In the aftermath, Judge Comerford appointed a panel led by Jerold Solovy of Jenner & Block to recommend ways to clean up the courts. The commission’s recommendations, issued in December 1984 and subsequently implemented by Judge Comerford, included limiting conversations between judges and attorneys in hallways and other non-courtroom settings.
At the time of his retirement, Judge Comerford lamented that Operation Greylord was seen by the public “as a systemic type thing when in fact it was the result of some greedy people that should have never been on the bench.”
Watching colleagues he thought he could trust found guilty of taking bribes and sent off to prison was tough on Judge Comerford, said longtime friend and legal partner Dick Schultz.
“He had to hold it together, and I thought he did a superb job,” Schultz said. “He cooperated fully with federal authorities.”
Current Chief Judge Timothy Evans said that Judge Comerford “recognized it was necessary to let the public know that this was an aberrational set of circumstances, that most judges were there to settle their disputes honestly, reliably and above-board.
Judge Comerford was raised on Chicago’s Near North Side.
He graduated from DePaul Academy High School and received a degree in business from DePaul University. He received his law degree from DePaul in 1947.
He was a Navy lieutenant in the Pacific during World War II. Back in Chicago, he was a special assistant attorney general, ran a private practice and worked as a lawyer for the Chicago Park District before being elected judge in 1960.
After stepping down from the bench, Judge Comerford continued to practice law.
Besides his daughter, survivors include his wife of 57 years, Noreen; another daughter, Susan Jacobs; a son, Brien ; a sister, Ann Babcock; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.