Sources: Judge took 206 sick days
By Lisa Donovan and Abdon Pallasch Staff Reporters February 18, 2012 4:05PM
Judge Vanessa Hopkins | Sun-Times File-2002
Updated: March 20, 2012 8:21AM
Cook County Circuit Court Judge Vanessa A. Hopkins racked up 206 sick days in the last year, the most of any local judge, according to sources and documents obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.
Reached by phone at her home Saturday, Hopkins said: “I’ve been out for some time, yes. I hope to return very soon.”
She said she’s suffering from a shoulder injury — specifically a rotator cuff _ “among other things” but declined to discuss the medical issues that have kept her off the bench for the better part of a year.
“That’s a private matter — with the court and my doctor — and I’d rather not discuss it,” Hopkins said. “They’ve [the court] been kept posted about my medical status.”
The issue of sick and vacation time bubbled up last week as Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans responded to an inquiry from Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne M. Burke about the extended absences of some of the 411 Cook County jurists.
“I write today in response to your inquiry yesterday of what you characterized as rumors of unexplained or suspicious “judicial absences of weeks or months at a time” by judges who are assigned to the Circuit Court of Cook County,” Evans wrote in a Feb. 15 letter sent to Burke, apparently quoting the supreme court justice.
He confirmed in the letter that 20 of the system’s 411 judges had taken more than 30 sick days in the last year for everything from deadly illnesses to psychological problems.
“Of course, our judges are human and are vulnerable to the same human frailties as any other human being may be and had to take time off for treatment associated with a full range of medical ailments from the common cold to terminal cancer . . . neurological and psychological problems, limb amputations and two illnesses leading to death,” Evans wrote.
In the letter, obtained by the Sun-Times, Evans explains that judges are “permitted” to take less than 29 sick days without a doctor’s note. Thirty or more days, a judge needs to provide “medical verification,” Evans wrote.
Hopkins said she wasn’t sure she had been out 206 days — the most of any of her colleagues as sources have said. “Right now, I’m on medications and I can’t provide you with exact numbers,” she said.
“I haven’t been gone since April,” she said when asked about what multiple sources said was the last time she was in her Daley Center courtroom. She handles civil cases and earns $178,835 a year.
“Right now I’m hazy, I’m foggy with pain medications,” she said when asked when she had last worked.
“The rest is more of a private medical issue,” she said as she ended the conversation quickly. “If you’ll excuse me, my back is giving me terrible problems.”
Hopkins’ election to the bench in 1996 generated headlines because she was little more than two years out of law school. All of Chicago’s bar groups unanimously found her “unqualified” or “not recommended” for the bench and many of them have given her poor ratings since then when she has run for retention to the bench.
Evans said 18 judges — 4.4 percent — took more than 30 days of vacation time within the last year. While judges get about five weeks each year, Evans wrote in his letter, they can carry over unused days from the previous year.
Neither Evans nor Burke could be reached for comment about what prompted the concerns over absent judges.