Heiple was brilliant but lacked filter


Jim Heiple was one of the brightest people I’ve ever met who said some of the politically dumbest things I’ve ever heard.
The former Illinois Supreme Court Justice from Pekin died last week at age 87.
As I journalist, I always liked to talk to Heiple because he said whatever crossed his mind. He was brilliant but lacked the filter that most successful people in public life develop.
One time, the two of us were wandering through the Supreme Court building and he remarked that the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials should never have taken place. Why? Well, his contention was that the Nazi leaders didn’t break the law.
Sure, the Holocaust was morally reprehensible but the Third Reich had no law prohibiting genocide. So, he contended the men hung at Nuremberg by the Allies were convicted of crimes that didn’t exist at the time they were committed.
It’s an interesting academic argument. But most politicians are savvy enough when they mention “Nazis” to follow it with something like, “may they rot in hell forever.”
Not Jim Heiple.
“When my Dad considered the law, it was not based on what the outcome should be, only on what the proper application of the law was,” his son, Jonathan, a Peoria lawyer told me Monday.
Heiple was a judge for 30 years on all three levels of the Illinois judiciary. He left the state’s top court 20 years ago. His opinions were razor sharp and his legal sparring partners occasionally bore scars.
And he had some self-inflicted scars of his own. He resigned as chief justice, but not from the court itself, when legislative committee looked into his behavior during police traffic stops.
“He did things like not roll down his window when he got pulled over and drive away when the officer walked back to his police car,” said Retired Justice Ben Miller, who served on the court with Heiple.
I remember visiting Heiple in the living quarters above the courtroom. As we stood before a dinner table, he explained that the jurists sat at the table in the order of their seniority.

“When I was chief justice, I sat at the head of the table but I had to give that up, so now I have to sit over there,” he said a bit wistfully as he pointed to an empty chair further down the table.
Heiple is best known for his decision in the Baby Richard and Baby Joe cases.
The child known as Baby Richard was removed in 1995 from the home of his adoptive parents and transferred to his biological parents. In the opinion written by Heiple, the high court ruled the boy’s biological father was entitled to custody because the boy’s mother had lied to him, telling him the child died at birth.
Following this decision, Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene launched a journalism crusade against Heiple, authoring more than 50 columns critical of his handling of the case. Chicago anchorman Walter Jacobson called him “evil” and “dangerous,” broadcast Heiple’s home phone number and asked viewers to call and say, “We beg you, your honor Judge Heiple, please stop destroying the lives of children.”.
“That was a particularly hard time for my father,” Jonathan Heiple said. “Our mother was dying and he was home caring for her.”
Heiple told the Chicago Tribune he had no regrets about that opinion. “We don’t decide cases on the basis of feeling sorry for somebody. We decide cases on the basis of the law and the evidence.”
In the Baby Joe case, a loving foster family, Craig and Karyl Findley, were rearing the 2-year-old who they hoped to adopt.
Instead, Heiple ordered the child returned to his previous family saying they shouldn’t be denied the opportunity to rear the child because they weren’t “picture perfect.”
But Joe’s court-ordered parents divorced and his adoptive father was charged with beating his mother, and he allegedly exposed the boy to pornography. At age 8, Joe was charged with aggravated criminal sexual assault against his adoptive younger sister. The boy pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was placed in the custody of the Department of Children and Family Services.
Craig Findley, a kind and decent man who I’ve known for decades, told me Sunday, “Heiple never understood that he should rule in the best interest of the child.”
Appellate Justice William Holdridge was a close friend of Heiple, and described him as a brilliant “renaissance man” who loved to learn and hated school.
“Jim viewed the law as a trade. He wasn’t particularly impressed with someone who had a degree from Harvard or Yale. He was more impressed by what they knew and what they could do,” he said. “A lot of people graduate from law school and don’t even know how to file a deed.”
In 1956, Heiple was kicked out of Indiana University’s law school after punching out a classmate’s two front teeth and fracturing his jaw. He later obtained a law degree at the University of Louisville.
“Jim did not like bullies and he would stand up to them,” Holdridge said.
Holdridge said of his friend, “I used  to say he missed the course in ‘salesmanship.’ He just said whatever he was thinking.”

Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter. ScottReeder1965@gmail.com