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Legal referee in the Emanuel residency case ‘fair to a fault’

Joe Morris 59 once ran for Cook County Board president. | John H. White~Sun-Times

Joe Morris, 59, once ran for Cook County Board president. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 15, 2010 2:30AM

In 1989, attorney Joe Morris was at the center of a national controversy. He represented veterans groups seeking to force the Art Institute of Chicago to remove an exhibit that featured a U.S. flag lying on a gallery floor.

More than two decades later, Morris is back in the eye of a political storm. He’s the bow-tied, bend-over-backwards-to-be-fair hearing officer who will decide the residency case against former White House chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel.

“It’s so incongruous to see a conservative Republican deciding among all of these liberal Democrats. But, he’s the perfect person. He’s smart as hell and he’s got terrific instincts. He’s fair to a fault,” said longtime friend Robert Palmer.

“Joe Morris could be an Illinois Supreme Court justice. He could be a U.S. Supreme Court justice. He’s extravagantly over-qualified to be a hearing officer.”

Fellow conservative Republican Chris Robling is indirectly responsible for Morris’ current headache. As an Election Board commissioner in the early 1990s, Robling hired Morris as a hearing officer.

“Here we are 16 years later and the board is still investing confidence in Joe’s judgment. I’m very proud of that. He’s brilliant,” Robling said Tuesday.

“He’s fluent in Spanish. He’s fluent in Hebrew. He knows more English history than most British subjects. He’s the first guy you want to have a drink with. He’s a vital and vibrant intellect who is possessed of a lot of great knowledge, strong opinions and an ability to express them.”

A University of Chicago alum who spends Christmas day in holiday court so Christian attorneys can celebrate the holiday, Morris’ resume is as impressive as his Rolodex.

It includes high-ranking jobs with the U.S. Justice Department, the U.S. Information Agency, as chairman of the United Republican Fund, president of the Lincoln Legal Foundation and chairman of the B’nai Brith Center for Public Policy.

It also includes the unofficial title of “Mr. Conservative” of Illinois politics.

It was in that role that Morris challenged John Stroger in the 1994 race for Cook County Board president. Morris ran on a promise to eliminate the county sales tax, cut property taxes by ten percent and eliminate all countywide offices except state’s attorney.

“We would have been better off if we had elected him,” said former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow, who considers Morris a friend, even though their politics could not be more different.

Longtime friend Ann Therese Palmer argued that the American flag incident prepared Morris for the role he now holds.

“He has incredible experience dealing with nut cases and combustible situations. It’s a laser-like vision in terms of what is the long range goal and blocking out all the white noise that prevents you from getting there,” Palmer said.

“The fact that these people in the Emanuel hearing are hanging from the chandeliers and screaming at the top of their lungs will go nowhere with him. Joe is impressed by rationality and logic—not by emotion. He’s a true University of Chicago kid.”

Last week, Palmer sent Morris an e-mail asking him how he ended up as legal referee in the Emanuel residency case. Morris replied that he has “handled some hot potatoes before”—including the case of convicted felons attempting to run for alderman.

“I ruled them off the ballot. The [Election] Board reversed me. The Circuit Court affirmed the board. The Appellate Court affirmed the Board and the Circuit and the Supreme Court reversed them all and reinstated my decision,” Morris wrote.

In a statement that also applies to the Emanuel case, Morris wrote, “The parties did not object to my sitting. Perhaps they figure that a Republican has no dog in the fight.”

During a break in Tuesday’s proceedings, Morris said he’s “prepared to be as patient as” the election calendar allows to give all of the objectors their say.

“I’m trying to be fair to everybody. It advances the system if the system is not only fair, but perceived to be fair,” said Morris, 59.

“I’m grateful always for the opportunity to learn new things and be able to provide a public service.”

Morris also added that he feels no pressure “other than the pressure that comes with doing a professional job.”

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