Weather Updates

Mary Lee Leahy, who won court battle banning state patronage hiring, dies at 72

Mary Lee Leahy

Mary Lee Leahy

storyidforme: 41562800
tmspicid: 15367386
fileheaderid: 6966746

Updated: January 14, 2013 7:33AM

Mary Lee Leahy ran for 7th Ward alderman in 1971 as a progressive Democrat in an electoral world dominated by the political machinery of former Mayor Richard J. Daley.

She wound up losing that race but not before gaining the attention of then Chicago Daily News columnist Mike Royko.

“He said, ‘Mary Lee Leahy is so qualified for the City Council, it’s a shame to put her in with all those bums,’ ” recalled her lifelong friend, Ann M. Lousin, an attorney and professor at the John Marshall Law School.

But that kind of praise from a famous big-city newspaper columnist was hardly Leahy’s defining moment.

A graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, Mrs. Leahy went on to deliver the winning argument before the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark Rutan vs. Republican Party of Illinois. She described that debate before the justices as her most exhilarating professional experience.

The court’s 1990 decision siding with her client, the late Cynthia Rutan — who said she was passed over for a state promotion based on political considerations — wound up banning patronage hiring for rank-and-file government jobs.

“The issue for me is, did I do the very best job I could do? And when I got through with that argument, I thought that was the best I could do,” she said of her performance before the nation’s high court in a 2008 interview with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Mrs. Leahy died in Chicago on Wednesday after a battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 72.

Lousin recalled having dinner with her four decades ago, not long after Mrs. Leahy had served as a delegate in the 1970 Illinois constitutional convention. During that evening, Mrs. Leahy first espoused an epiphany about government hiring practices, her friend said.

“I remember her saying, ‘My views on patronage have evolved.’ This was over dinner one night. She said, ‘It’s logical to recommend and to hire people you know. But where it crosses the line is when the only reason you hire them is for what they’re going to do in the future to keep you in office in terms of working in your political campaign,” Lousin said.

Mrs. Leahy, who had two daughters, also worked with her late husband, Andrew Leahy, and a team of other lawyers, who ousted a slate of Democratic delegates to the 1972 Democratic National Convention. That slate, backed by Daley, included current House Speaker Michael J. Madigan (D-Chicago).

Mrs. Leahy served in Gov. Dan Walker’s administration in the mid-1970s as his director of the Department of Children and Family Services. Gov. Pat Quinn worked with her under Walker.

“Mary Lee Leahy was a strong advocate for the people who made her mark in Illinois as a reformer, attorney and public servant,” Quinn said in a statement released Wednesday night by his office.

“Illinois is a better and more ethical state because of Mary Lee. Through her principled and fair-minded work, she helped take politics out of state hiring and eliminated many abuses that had been used by elected officials who served their own interests instead of the people of Illinois,” he said.

“Mary Lee Leahy’s strong spirit and commitment to what is right shined in Illinois and will never be forgotten,” Quinn said.

Survivors include daughters Anna Marie Leahy and Brigid Leahy and a sister, Maggie Cullen.

Funeral arrangements were pending.

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.