After more than two decades as a judge in the 11th Judicial Circuit, Scott Drazewski left the bench in Courtroom 5A for the last time on Dec. 31, satisfied with his accomplishments and eager to meet the challenges that may lie ahead.
The pandemic of the past 10 months brought unforeseen challenges for judges, lawyers, and anyone with a pending court case, said the 63-year-old circuit judge.
“It has been a whirlwind,” said Drazewski.
The 11th Circuit, which includes McLean, Logan, Livingston, Ford, and Woodford counties, adapted its practices to meet health and safety guidelines from state and federal authorities. As the year and the changes unfolded, Drazewski viewed the new landscape at the Law and Justice Center as an opportunity for change in his life.
“It was almost like a bridge to my retirement. It was a reminder to me that the only constant in life is change. And the time is right for me to make that change,” said Drazewski, who became a circuit judge in 2002 after five years as an associate judge.
Drazewski, a native of Roselle, came to Illinois State University with a goal of becoming a veterinarian.
A political science course taught by James Knecht, now a judge on the Fourth District Appellate Court, combined with a distinct distaste for animal dissection Drazewski developed, caused him to change his course of study. The law replaced animal science as a career path.
A believer in fate, Drazewski views his relationship with Knecht and several other mentors as “being at the right place at the right time.”
Drazewski was at the right place in 2009 when former chief judge Elizabeth Robb chose him to lead the McLean County Drug Court. He said his role as presiding judge over the county’s first problem-solving court “is one of the things I’m most proud of.”
Judges and the teams that supports the drug, mental health and veterans’ courts work closely with defendants on the underlying causes of their criminal conduct. Addicts must understand the limited options they face when they enter the program, said Drazewski: “They can be incarcerated, institutionalized or in the ground.”
The uplifting experience of drug court graduations, and the low recidivism rate of those who complete the two-year program, makes the time and effort worthwhile, said Drazewski.
In his 22 years on the bench, Drazewski also presided over several high-profile murder trials, including the 2013 trial of Christopher Harris in the deaths of five members of a Beason family. Moved to Peoria because of extensive media coverage, the trial lasted about a month, and meant daily trips from Bloomington for the judge and court staff.
Harris is serving life in prison and his brother, Jason Harris, received 20 years for concealment of a homicide, obstruction of justice and drug charges.
Big cases can be emotional roller coasters for all the players in the courtroom, said Drazewski. Keeping a trial on schedule and a courtroom packed with media and families under control can be challenging.
“There were things I found helpful. I tried to have a sense of humor – at appropriate times,” as a way to lower the tension between lawyers on more stressful days, said Drazewski.
Judge Paul Lawrence described his friend and colleague as “a very fun-loving person. He always has a smile on his face and puts people at ease in the courtroom and outside as well.”
The judges are part of a group of avid cyclists who have taken extended road trips. Keeping up with Drazewski is a challenge, said Lawrence.
Drazewski is known among his peers as “a legal nerd,” said Lawrence, and the go-to source for legal questions.
“If he doesn’t have the answer when you ask the question, he’ll have one for you in 10 minutes,” said Lawrence.
The extended media program that allows video and audio recordings and photographs of court proceedings by the media debuted during Drazewski’s tenure.
“I don’t think it’s been anything but a stunning success,” said Drazewski.
The 2019 murder trial of Kirk Zimmerman, the Bloomington man charged and later acquitted of killing his ex-wife, holds the local record for objections by witnesses to being photographed.
Drazewski granted more than a dozen witness objections.
“There are certain witnesses who don’t want to be in the limelight,” he said, noting in some cases, people are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and end up being called to testify through no fault of their own.
Drazewski found himself in an unwelcome limelight in 2014 when he faced ethics charges related to an undisclosed romantic relationship with another judge, Rebecca Foley, to whom he is now married. Drazewski was given a four-month unpaid suspension by the Illinois Courts Commission.
As for his future, Drazewski said he will follow advice he received from another friend and mentor, retired judge Don Bernardi.
“He told me, 'Don’t do anything for the first six to nine months. Don’t make any commitments right away.' So, I have scheduled an extended trip to see family in Colorado, and we’ll see what happens after that.”
The process of selecting Drazewski’s replacement from a field of eight candidates is underway.
Applicants for the position include Public Defender Carla Barnes and associate judges Amy McFarland, Sarah Duffy and Scott Kording. Attorneys Timothy Bass, Joseph Foley and Danielle Kays also filed applications.
The Illinois Supreme Court is expected to name a replacement in mid-January.
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