Bernie Judge, a pugnacious, scoop-focused editor who strove to make the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin more than a legal industry trade journal, died today at his Chicago home after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, according to the publication. He was 79.
Judge worked at the city’s major daily newspapers and at the storied City News Bureau before joining the Bulletin in 1988, pursuing news according to journalism’s ideal: Without fear or favor.
“He lived for the story,” recalled David Axelrod, the political consultant whom Judge hired as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune in 1976. “His enthusiasm never dimmed. He loved to rattle the cages of people in power.” Attorney Thomas Demetrio said, “If there was a hot potato, he would have picked it up.”
Judge joined the Tribune in 1966 and rose to metro editor, with his staff winning two Pulitzer Prizes, but left after Jim Squires was appointed editor in 1981 and reshuffled jobs and assignments. In 1983 he became editor and general manager of City News and, two years later, associate editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, when the paper was owned by Rupert Murdoch.
At the Law Bulletin, Judge oversaw not only the five-day-a-week broadsheet, but also the monthly Chicago Lawyer magazine, which he infused with profiles of lawyers and judges, and investigations of judicial selection and other Cook County shenanigans.
“(Owner Lanning) Macfarland knew they were putting a true professional in place,” said Abdon Pallasch, a Chicago Lawyer alum who’s now communications director for Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza. “He wanted people to go out there and break news.”
One day, during a smoke break outside the Law Bulletin’s River North offices, Judge looked across the street and noticed a pale ghost also smoking.
“That’s Dick LeFevour!” he exclaimed to Pallasch, referring to a former Cook County judge convicted in Operation Greylord. The sighting led to Pallasch writing a where-are-they-now take in 1995 on some 55 surviving defendants convicted in the 1980s probe.
Macfarland bought the magazine from journalist Rob Warden to frustrate a possible competitor, but Judge’s aim was higher.
“Although he bought it for the title . . . we built the Lawyer from the ground up into a large-format news magazine that included longer news analysis and detailed reports on law firm business, the courts, individuals and trends,” said Donna Gill, a former managing editor.
Judge grew up an immigrant’s son on the South Side and graduated from Fenwick High School in Oak Park in 1957. Although he attended John Carroll University, in the “Front Page” tradition he didn’t have a college degree. He would scream at callers who tried to kill a story or threaten to cancel an ad.
“He wasn’t afraid of his staff. He wasn’t afraid of his bosses. He wasn’t afraid of powerful people. He would criticize even big advertisers if he had to,” said Jerry Crimmins, another former colleague. “He made Chicago Lawyer into a fat general-interest magazine for the legal community in Chicago.”
Current Law Bulletin Media owners Sandy and Brewster Macfarland said in a statement: “We fondly remember Bernie, who retired in 2007, dispensing wisdom he learned from a tough, old editor at the City News Bureau: ‘If your mother says she loves you, check it out.’ “
Gill said Judge remained a police reporter at heart.
“One day we were in a car heading for Manny’s Deli, going on back streets and talking about something, when Bernie interrupted. He jabbed his finger toward the windshield, ‘Watch! Watch! Watch!’ An unmarked car had rushed to a curb. Two plain-clothes cops got out, grabbed a guy and shoved him in the car.” Judge remarked, “‘That guy never knew what hit him,'” Gill recalled.
Services are pending.
The frequency of the Chicago Lawyer has been corrected in this updated story.