Serendipity, a Tribute to Judge Jack B. Schmetterer

By Mark S. Wheeler, Staff Attorney to M.O. Marshall, Standing Chapter 13 Trustee (Chicago, IL)

(Used with expressed permission. Published February 2021 in the Northern District of Illinois Bankruptcy Court Liaison Committee Newsletter.)

Despite appearing before the Senior Bankruptcy Judge for the Northern District of Illinois perhaps hundreds of times over the last 29 years, I was uncharacteristically nervous to interview him. After all, a person could be quite different personally in an interview setting than they appear professionally. On the day I interviewed him, the door from the courtroom to the Judge’s office opened and Judge Jack B. Schmetterer entered with a broad smile and a kind greeting. In a demonstration of social grace that wasn’t wasted on me, he insisted on putting on his suit coat. And with that the Judge said “Serendipity”, which began a nearly eighty minute narrative on his life events covering the period of 1948 to the present day.

Serendipity is a term defined by Merriam Webster as a noun meaning the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. Schmetterer graduated from Oak Park High School in 1948 and applied to just one institution, Yale College. Despite very strong academic credentials, he was denied admission to Yale. He shared that fact with one of his high school teachers who took him to visit a Christian minister at one of the large congregations in Oak Park. After they discussed the issue of his admission, the minister wrote a letter to Yale asking them to change their ruling. Apparently, the letter worked because soon after he received notification that he was accepted. At this point, the judge paused briefly in thought and said “Only in America could a Jewish kid from Oak Park get admitted to an Ivy League college on the recommendation of a Christian minister…”

While at Yale, Schmetterer immersed himself in the culture of the school and became active in the Yale Political Union Liberal Party. Interestingly, one of his classmates was Edwin Meese who many years later would become Attorney General of the Unites States during the Reagan Administration. Initially, Schmetterer studied Political Science at Yale, but after his junior year switched to a program major called Scholar of the House. In that program he authored a major paper (Similar to a Thesis…) on the development of political forces against the St. Lawrence Seaway, focusing on government and economics. He then emphasizes how enjoyable his final year of undergrad was and it culminated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1952.

Judge Schmetterer’s father was a general practitioner in Chicago for many years, so it was only natural that he applied to law school at both Yale and Harvard. He editorializes that he applied to Yale for several reasons including that he was already familiar with New Haven and the campus layout. He had a part time job teaching undergrads Political Science to help pay for law school, and perhaps the most important consideration the quality of the Italian cuisine in that region. This time no Serendipity was needed as he was accepted at both Yale and Harvard. As you probably guessed, he chose to continue his studies at Yale. He met his first wife Joan prior to graduating from law school and relates with great affection what a wonderful person she was. He shared a story at this point that he took Joan on a date to Ravinia and chuckles that she kept talking while he was trying to hear the performers. Schmetterer graduated from Yale Law School with his LLB in 1955.

In the 1950s the draft was still very much a part of our society, and the judge stated that his draft deferment was running out so he used his last extension to marry Joan before reporting to basic training. Following his basic training he and Joan moved to Ft. Gordon, Georgia. There he attended military police school because with his law degree the Army thought that was the best place for him. The Schmetterer’s had very limited means while stationed in Georgia, and he remembers a time when they went without water for a short time due to uncharacteristically cold weather in the region that caused their pipes to freeze. At this point in the interview I couldn’t help but feeling what a pampered upbringing many of us had in later generations without having to face real adversity. In 1957 Joan got a teaching job first at a Catholic School, then at a public school in Georgia. Her supervisors at the segregated school said they understood that she belonged to a different religion, but that she was ordered to bring her class down for a school prayer and because she knew that such a directive was unconstitutional, she refused to bring her class to the prayer and told the administrators that if they wanted them they would need to come get them. The school administrators finally relented and dropped the requirement for her class to attend the prayer. Schmetterer reflects, that at that particular point, the really needed the second income and that they were “as poor as church mice.”

Schmetterer was discharged from active duty in the Army in 1958 and he and his wife eagerly moved back to the Chicago area. He worked practicing with his dad for 6.5 years when Serendipity struck again. One of Schmetterer’s teachers at Yale was appointed as Deputy Attorney General of the United States, so he sent a letter congratulating him on his appointment and the former teacher contacted the U.S. Attorney in Chicago and another career began as a Federal prosecutor. He started in the Civil Division and a man by the name of Thomas James who was the head of the Civil Division at the U.S. Attorney (USA) office in Chicago. Ironically, Thomas James and a co-worker in the Civil Division, Erwin I. Katz both later became Bankruptcy Judges in the Northern District of Illinois. Schmetterer eventually became the head of the Civil Division following James’ departure. He worked on enjoinment of public workers , but perhaps the most notable case he was involved in happened to be the first Northern school desegregation case, United States v. School District 151 of Cook County, Ill., 301 F. Supp. 201 (N.D. Ill. 1969) when he served as First Assistant U.S. Attorney. The case also had a timely pop culture connection in that the Judge was the Honorable Julius Hoffman, who also adjudicated the Chicago Seven trial that was depicted in a newly released motion picture on the event last year. He was in the USA office during the 1968 Democratic Convention which become notorious for police brutality cases and mob demonstrations. Schmetterer was responsible for prosecuting use of excessive use of force by police officers. Richard Nixon won the 1968 election and Schmetterer stayed on for two years until the new US Attorney was appointed and that signaled his time to leave public service in 1970.

The judge went into a private law firm where he was a partner and they handled civil anti-trust cases almost exclusively. However, his absence from public service did not last long when the Cook County States Attorney at the time, Ed Hanrahan, called him and offered him the First Assistant Cook County States Attorney position circa 1972.

In his new position he was tasked with a herculean effort of reviewing and producing an inventory of all the search warrants issued in Cook County. The purpose of his assignment was to engage prosecutors in the process to obtain search warrants, because at the time , the police were obtaining warrants on their own and many of them were defective. In a worse case scenario a murdered was released due to suppression of evidence that stemmed from a bungled search warrant due to the police mishandling it. In the mid 1970s Schmetterer indicated that the (Cook County) circuit judges would sign almost anything that was placed in front of them and had no qualms telling anyone who would listen that that was their psychology, they might sign an search warrant one day and find that it was defective the next. He also worked on voter fraud cases. A group of reporters from the Tribune served as election judges and reported a substantial amount of voter fraud. After two years at the States attorney, his boss ran for reelection and lost. Once again, it was time to find the next position his experience would land him.

Following his two year stint at the States Attorney office, Schmetterer went back into practice at Gottlieb & Schwartz where he was a partner and spent approximately eleven years there. Then he remembers a Thursday night when a fellow partner asked him out for a drink and was informed that there were a number of partners that he considered friends that had been plotting a firm reorganization without his knowledge and those plans including throwing out several partners and taking the firm in a “different direction”. He indicated to the partner who revealed the plan that he opposed it and his vote was no. When he arrived home that night he ran into an old friend-Serendipity. He pulled out an application for a bankruptcy judge opening he had been thinking about and the deadline was the very next day.

Schmetterer sought a short extension of time to gather his application materials. Also at the time, around 1984, Schmetterer was appointed to serve out the balance of a term for the Northbrook Village Board to replace a trustee who was elected to another position. He enjoyed serving on the Board a great deal and was asked to run for the seat he occupied permanently, however he was then notified that he would be appointed to the Bench as a Bankruptcy Judge. Durring these career changes, Judge Schmetterer and Joan managed to have three children Laura, Mark and Ken. Joan continued teaching for 25 years and her last position was with Northbrook Public Schools. In 1998, about two years after her retirement, Joan succumbed to lung cancer despite not smoking her entire life. Judge Schmetterer met his second wife Barbara on New Years Day 2000, and 18 months later they were married. He repeats what wonderful women he had married in his life. He was reappointed to a second 14 year term in 1999, then retired from the bench in 2011. He was later recalled where he continues to work even hearing a full Chapter 13 call every week. He also expresses his deep appreciation to his Judicial Assistants, Courtroom Deputies and Secretaries that faithfully served him over the years including Dorothy Clay, his current Judicial Assistant and Matthew Utter, his Courtroom Deputy. He also reflects on the fondness he had for his colleagues leagues like Judge Robert Ginsberg, who he indicates was a genius and possessed a photographic memory. He also mentions the strong leadership of the Court that spanned years under Judge John Schwartz. Judge Schmetterer reflects on the entirety of his life with nothing but positivity, a trait that is both unusual and refreshing. His honesty and refusal to embellish his story indicates that he has always been confident and comfortable in his own skin.

On November 8, 2018 Judge Schmetterer was recognized by the Decalogue Society with the Inaugural Ilana Diamond Rovner Lifetime Achievement Award. This was a truly fitting culmination to an outstanding career that was assisted by Serendipity, but Serendipity didn’t earn a law degree or serve in the Army, or have a work ethic that allowed it to find opportunities time after time to better positions with more responsibility.

I enjoyed writing this piece a great deal and my appreciation of the past or almost anything that reminds me of my youth continues to increase with age. I’ve come to view that as a good thing. I have always greatly respected Judge Schmetterer for his fairness and a personal level in completing this project because while I have always held Judge Schmetterer in the highest regard, I found myself appreciating him as normal person. A normal person with an extraordinary story, amazing life, outstanding career and exceptional moral fiber. There is no doubt that I discovered something good that day that occurred by chance and ended in a way that was both happy and beneficial. In other words, it could also be described as Serendipitous.

______________________

markwheeler Mark S. Wheeler is a staff attorney with M.O. Marshall, Trustee in Chicago. He currently serves as the co-chair of the Liaison Committee for United States Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Illinois. Wheeler has served on numerous educational panels related to consumer bankruptcy including the 2004 NACTT Annual Conference, the 2013 ABI Chicago Consumer Bankruptcy Conference and the 88th Annual Meeting of the NCBJ. He is admitted to practice to in Illinois (U.S. Dist. Northern) and Michigan (U.S. Dist. Eastern and Western) and he was honored to receive recognition as legal services volunteer of the year in 2014 by the Center on Halsted, an LGBT resource center serving all communities for his pro bono representation of clients. He has taught multiple consumer bankruptcy CLE sessions at the Chicago Bar Association. Other than practicing bankruptcy law, his passion is interviewing people in the community and writing articles about them based on his interview. He loves spending time with his two dogs, Chester and Buehrle (Pronounced “Burley”) and riding his motorcycle every day when the weather permits. Wheeler received his B.A. from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan and his J.D. from The Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, Michigan.

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