I wasn’t one of those kids who always knew they wanted to get into the legal profession. I didn’t grow up knowing I wanted to be a lawyer. In fact, I don’t remember the exact moment when it happened, but I think I was always aware of the special role that attorneys play in our society.
It may have been cultural. Cubans often refer to lawyers as doctors and problem solvers showcasing the way they think of lawyers in such a high regard. I grew up with an appreciation of how important it was for lawyers to lead based upon what happened in Cuba.
Tell me about your professional career from law school to your journey to the bench.
Midway through my first year of law school, I knew I wanted to be public defender. I wanted to serve as a public defender in a big city in a state system. So, I applied to a number of different offices across the country, and I wound up having to pick between New York and Chicago for my first role outside of law school. I have lived in Chicago ever since.
I worked as a public defender for 11 years before I got on the bench. As a public defender, I started out working in Juvenile Court in what was formerly known as “Abuse and Neglect”, now referred to as Child Protection. I represented parents who were accused of abusing and neglecting their kids. From there, you typically transfer to the other side of the building, which I did, to work in what was formerly known as Delinquency – now Juvenile Justice – where I represented minors who were charged with claims.
I actually met my wife while I was working as a public defender. She was also working as a public defender at the time. Both of us were in the criminal courts over on 26th and California.
In 2003, I was appointed as an Associate Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County. I spent some time at the Skokie Courthouse, and ultimately ended up going back to 26th Street to serve as a judge. I was on the state bench for about 11 years before I was appointed and became a federal judge, where I currently am today.
What has been one of the most rewarding things about serving as a federal judge?
Each month, one of the great things we do is the Naturalization Ceremonies. It’s a great experience for everyone involved. It’s usually a big group of people, always filling up the ceremonial courtroom. But it doesn’t feel like it. It seems very intimate.
Each time I oversee these ceremonies, I always make a point to tell them that I, too, was naturalized. I actually show them a picture from my naturalization ceremony when I was 16 with a full head of hair, and I blow it up so they can really see it and truly believe it.
It lets them see that they aren’t the only ones going through this, and that there are opportunities out there in this country. It’s not just a slogan. It does all of us good to see that despite the rhetoric and the debate that’s been going on in the U.S.
People are still optimistic and excited to become a part of the fabric of our country – embracing the opportunities and the freedom we have here in the United States.
Why do you believe civility matters in the legal profession?
To define it, civility is just consideration. It’s just common sense and common decency to be considerate of other people. Lawyers have a special status – they are officers of the court. They should do what they can to uphold these institutions that are so important to us. Not because it’s me saying that, but as a judge and as a member of this profession, it is what the court and the rule of law represents.
It should come naturally, but, unfortunately it doesn’t for many attorneys.
There are very strategic reasons why being considerate and civil are important. I feel strongly that I have seen lawyers lose jury trials because they are mean.
And being uncivil is a hard habit to break, especially when you are mean for a year and a half during discovery and for all of the status calls and motions. I have seen lawyers who can’t stop even when 12 jurors are sitting right in front of them. These lawyers end up losing their cases that they should have won, because they couldn’t just be civil.
Did you have a mentor?
My mentor was Hon. Paul Bieble, the presiding judge of 26th and California where I worked early in my career. He saw something in me as I was trying to become an associate judge. He thought I had potential, and that’s just where the relationship started.
I specifically remember one day when we were talking about possibilities for me in the future. I remember telling him that I was “just an associate judge” knowing there were certain limitations to where I could go and how high I could rise in the system. And he said to me “219”.
At the time, I was too embarrassed to admit I didn’t know what he was talking about. I remember going home asking my wife, and we had to google it. I just typed in the number 219, and I found out what he meant. 219 was the address of the Federal Court here in Chicago.
He was there every step of the way giving me advice, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.
How have you mentored others throughout your career?
Having the luxury to be able to mentor was one of the reasons I wanted to become a judge in the first place. I have consistently worked to try and give young lawyers and students advice so they can succeed.
I’m involved with a number of charities that deal with education. I’m on the board of the Daniel Murphy Scholarship Fund and on the Leadership Advisory Council of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School. So, as far as mentoring goes, I do a lot of work with high school kids, ensuring they have opportunities to attend good high schools. In fact, I’ve actually got a Daniel Murphy kid coming this summer to work as an intern.
At work, mentoring is an ongoing process. There are always students coming in to observe, and I am always sitting on moot courts. It’s just something that happens at least once a week here at the courthouse.
Since there are limitations on what judges can do to give back — for instance, we can’t fundraise – mentoring sort of just serves as a way to compensate for that.
Outside of these roles and your work serving as a Commissioner on the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, how do you spend your time?
Within the legal community, I am greatly involved with the Legal Assistance Program. I am an intervener there. As an intervener, we support local attorneys, judges, and their families who are struggling with alcohol and other forms of addiction. I also teach at John Marshall Law School.
Outside of the legal profession, I love to spend time with my family, play tennis, and read. My kids are at a great age now where we can read a book together. My big one is a huge reader. She currently has us reading Moby Dick together.
Hon. Jorge Alonso has served on the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism since 2017.