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Lawyer Solovy dead at 80

Jerold S. Solovy

Jerold S. Solovy

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Updated: May 4, 2011 4:46AM

It’s hard to imagine a Chicago lawyer who outranks Jerold S. Solovy in terms of reputation, influence, and largesse.

In his 55-year-long career, the Harvard law graduate evolved into a leonine litigator and confidante of U.S. presidents, yet “Jerry” never lost the common touch he had as a young man at South Shore High School.

He kept the candy jars in his office filled with malted milk balls and chocolate kisses for visitors — and himself. (He didn’t consider most vegetables worth his time.) Friends and relatives say he was as courtly to elevator and newsstand operators as he was to titans of industry.

He could handle any type of case, from Chicago politics, to international business disputes involving billions of dollars. He did pro-bono criminal defense work that resulted in re-sentencings for an estimated 350 people on Death Rows across the nation. He headed a reform commission after the Operation Greylord scandal pulled up a rock and exposed the bribe-fat creepy-crawlies teeming in some Cook County courtrooms.

He saved Illinois a bundle when he succeeded in reducing to $67.5 million the $900 million in fees requested by law firms who represented the state in a landmark 2002 settlement with the tobacco industry. He fought for adoptive parents Kim and Jay Warburton in the “Baby Richard” adoption case. The country was transfixed in 1995 when the Warburtons were ordered to relinquish the sobbing 4-year-old boy, after a ruling that his birth father had not consented to the adoption.

Mr. Solovy, 80, chairman emeritus of the Jenner & Block law firm, died Wednesday morning at his home in Naples, Fla. His wife Kathleen Hart Solovy was at his side, the firm said.

“We’ve lost one of the finest lawyers in the history of Illinois,” said Thomas L. Kilbride, chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court.

“Jerry Solovy is without question the most prominent leader in the Chicago legal community over the past many decades,” said lawyer Dan Webb, the former U.S. Attorney here.

Mr. Solovy wasn’t just expert in the courtroom. “He could also handle matters in the boardroom. He knew how to handle clients. He knew how to generate business,” Webb said.

“He ultimately became one of the leading lawyers in the country,” said Jenner & Block’s Tom P. Sullivan, who, like Webb, also worked previously as the U.S. Attorney for northern Illinois.

“He was a fierce litigator with the heart of a public servant who took great pride in the fact that much of his work was based on referrals from former opposing counsel,” said another former U.S. Attorney, Jenner & Block chair Anton R. Valukas.

Mr. Solovy said he was most proud of his pro bono work in the case of Witherspoon vs. The State of Illinois, which stopped William Witherspoon’s execution. “He took it all the way to the [U.S.] Supreme Court, that a juror who has qualms about imposing the death penalty cannot be excluded from a jury,” said Joe Tybor, a spokesman for the state Supreme Court.

The Kennedy family turned to Mr. Solovy for help a decade ago. “We got Jerry, and we got justice,” said Merchandise Mart chief Chris Kennedy.

He won the family a $53 million lawsuit against MetLife. The insurance company said the Kennedys owed them the money for paying off the mortgage early when the family sold the Merchandise Mart.

“When the Kennedy family had been wronged we sought out Jerry Solovy to defend our rights,” Chris Kennedy said. “We wanted a lawyer with tenacious advocacy and a deft understanding of the nature of the judiciary.”

Though he dressed impeccably, often in suits from London and Chicago’s finest clothiers, Mr. Solovy preferred eating hot dogs to steak, friends said.

Mr. Solovy earned his B.A. in political science from the University of Michigan in 1952 and graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1955.

Mr. Solovy knew how to turn on the charm. Once, he appeared in court to fight a speeding ticket issued to his first wife, Dolores Kohl. “He told the judge that if he lost this important case, he probably wasn’t going to get dinner that night,” Dolores Kohl said. He won. She is the founder of the Dolores Kohl Education Foundation and a member of the family that founded Kohl Department stores.

He was close to Democratic powerhouses including Presidents Clinton and Obama.

Mr. Solovy was still working up until he died. In fact, “He would call me once a week,” said Webb, of Winston & Strawn, “and ask me why I wasn’t sending him any cases.”

Mr. Solovy is also survived by his sons, Jonathan and Stephen Solovy, and Scott Reading; a daughter, Kelly Peters, and eight grandchildren.

Arrangements were pending.

Contributing: Abdon M. Pallasch

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