GOP Hearing Officer at Center of Rahm's Case

Sunday, Dec 19, 2010  |  Updated 3:15 PM CDT
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Hearing Officer Joseph Morris conducts Rahm Emanuel's residency hearing in December 2010.

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The man now weighing whether Rahm Emanuel can run for Chicago mayor is a Republican in a bowtie.

Joseph Morris, an attorney and veteran hearing officer, will make a recommendation to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners this week after overseeing three grueling days of hearings in which button-down lawyers and zealous objectors took turns grilling President Barack Obama's former chief of staff about whether he is a legal resident of Chicago -- a marathon that veered into the contents of Emanuel's basement crawl space and whether he was involved in the 1993 Branch Davidian tragedy in Waco, Texas.

At times exasperated, though surprisingly patient and accommodating, the 59-year-old Morris ultimately was praised for his fairness by some of the inquisitors he was tasked with guiding and restraining. And friends and acquaintances say that, despite his political leanings, Morris won't let partisanship influence him when he makes his recommendation about Emanuel, a Democrat.

"This is an exercise in citizenship," Morris said as he wrapped up the hearing last week. He complimented the citizen inquisitors on the eloquence of their closing arguments, and joked that he certainly was never tempted to fall asleep during the hearings, which repeatedly threatened to vault from fact to farce.

Chris Robling, a Republican political activist who has known Morris for years, said it's no surprise he would go out of his way to give people their say during the hearing.

"Two years from now, if you had to write a story about Joe Morris and fairness, one of the sources would be Rahm Emanuel," said Robling, who helped Morris land his job as a hearing officer with the elections board in the early 1990s. "I think Joe has a civic conscience about his place in society as an attorney, as an advocate. I think he cares very deeply about justice being done."

The ultimate decision whether Emanuel's name will be on the Feb. 22 ballot will fall to the three-member election board, which is likely to decide at its scheduled meeting on Thursday. Appointed by the chief judge of the Cook County Circuit Court, all three are attorneys, two of them Democrats, the third a Republican.

The election board's decision is not expected to end the matter either, however. Attorneys on one side or the other are expected to quickly appeal for a final ruling by the courts.

More than two dozen objectors contend that Emanuel doesn't have a legal right to run for mayor because he doesn't meet a requirement that candidates live in the city for one year before the vote. Until he returned in October to seek to replace six-term Mayor Richard M. Daley, who is retiring, Emanuel lived for nearly two years in Washington working for Obama.

Emanuel and his attorneys argue that he only left Chicago to serve the country at a time of crisis and always intended to return home. They note that he kept his house here, though he rented it, and inside kept dozens of cherished personal possessions, including his wife's wedding dress.

Morris is a Gary, Ind., native, and a University of Chicago graduate who worked in the federal government under President Ronald Reagan, including at the Justice Department. He ran for Cook County board president in 1994 but lost. And he is no stranger to the spotlight: In the late 1980's, he represented veterans groups who pressured the Art Institute of Chicago to remove an exhibit that included the U.S. flag lying on the floor.

From behind his reading glasses, Morris kept an even demeanor during the hearings and went out of his way to help objectors without lawyers craft questions in legalese, often to the obvious annoyance of the lawyers in the room. But Morris also was quick to try to shut things down when objectors veered off topic, such as when one man insisted on asking Emanuel about his FBI file.

"Those are utterly improper questions and I don't see the relevance of the questions," chided Morris, who is in private practice in Chicago.

"Let's have a question," he said to another objector making a speech about Emanuel playing "fast and loose" in his mayoral bid.

But sometimes Morris wasn't strict enough to the attorneys' liking when objectors launched into long-windedness.

"Could we have a question, Mr. Morris? Mr. Morris, it's another political speech. I have a case to put on," implored Burt Odelson, a veteran elections attorney handling one of the more prominent objections.

Usually good humored and very often funny, even Morris showed exasperation late on the hearing's last day, after one objector accused him repeatedly of "treason" and said he was going to report him to U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald, whom the objector called "Peter" Fitzgerald.

Morris corrected the man about Fitzgerald's first name, and suggested he make sure he got it right before going to the prosecutor's office to "make sure you are looking for the right one."

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