Respect and Justice for All

Judge John Fitzgerald Lyke, Jr.

Circuit Judge, Cook County Criminal Division

Judge John Fitzgerald Lyke, Jr. has seen every side of the criminal courtroom, and it all started at Chicago-Kent.

John Fitzgerald Lyke, Jr.
Law '94

Editor's note: this is an updated story from the the Fall 2023 Chicago-Kent Magazine. To read the magazine in full, follow this link.

“If we as judges allow chaos to take over our courtrooms, we as a society are done because we’re the last bastion,” says Judge John Fitzgerald Lyke Jr. ’94. “We’re the last line of defense to a civil society.”

Lyke knows a lot about the chaos and violence that exist in the world.

He’s been working in criminal law for nearly 30 years now—first in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, then as a defense lawyer in his own firm, and now on the bench as a circuit judge in the criminal division at the circuit court of Cook County, Illinois.

Lyke has spent the last two years in the criminal division, but has done a stint in every division in Cook County—even setting bail in cases featuring R. Kelly, Jussie Smollett, and G Herbo.

But he didn’t become a lawyer to brush elbows with the rich and famous.

“My background is very humble, to put it mildly. I’m from Robert Taylor Housing Projects, as well as [the] Englewood [neighborhood], two of the roughest places in Chicago, particularly back in those days,” he says. “I saw a lot of, in my opinion at the time, maltreatment of African Americans, people who look like me, by the police. That motivated me to want to go to law school to defend those people who really couldn’t defend themselves.”

Lyke spent 15 years in private practice representing people from disadvantaged neighborhoods and backgrounds. “I’m most proud of that,” he says.

Before joining the defense table, Lyke spent six years at the State’s Attorney’s Office, a move he says he never would have made if it weren’t for the guidance of former Judge David Erickson, a senior instructor and the trial advocacy program director at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

At the time, Erickson was working at the State’s Attorney’s Office and coaching Chicago-Kent’s trial advocacy team, of which Lyke was a star member.

“He told me I could help more people as a prosecutor than I ever could as a defense attorney. I told him to start explaining that to me because sending more African Americans to jail, how is that helpful?” he says. “

But Erickson convinced Lyke that being a prosecutor was the right path.

“If you think injustice has been done, you have the power as a prosecutor to dismiss the case or reduce it down to where your version of justice may be had,” Lyke recalls Erickson saying. “As a defense attorney, you don’t have that power at all. In fact, a judge doesn’t even have that power.”

The experience Lyke got as a state’s attorney and as a defense lawyer helped shape him into a stronger judge. He recognizes the trauma that is carried into his courtroom on a daily basis and believes that society needs to better address it.

It’s also why he believes that everyone deserves to be treated with respect, and that comes through in the way he runs his courtroom.

“The defendant’s family is extremely stressed out because they know if he or she is convicted, more likely than not, that person, if they get out of prison, will be so old that most of their loved ones will be dead anyway,” he says. “On the other side as a prosecutor, those victims know they will never see their loved one again in the flesh. So emotions run high.”

Attorney Brandon Brown was an associate at Lyke’s private firm for years. Lyke acted as a mentor for him—and every troubled young man he came across.

“He understood that his responsibility as an advocate in the criminal practice went beyond just representing young men and women in the well of the courtroom,” Brown says, recalling how Lyke would act as a father figure to his clients, guiding them in much more than just law.

“He wanted the people that he represented to respect him, but he also wanted them to know that he respected them equally,” says Brown. “He always wanted the client and their family to know that we are all on level ground, and that by no means because I’m a lawyer, am I better than you.”

Lyke taught Brown everything he knew, but especially to not cut corners.

He also remembers the way that Lyke shined as a litigator.

“If you wanted to upset him and turn him into the best lawyer in the world, all it required was a judge trying to push an unjust outcome or a prosecutor trying to ask for an unjust outcome, and that would bring out the best advocate in John,” says Brown. “When I hear people talk about some of the incredible trial lawyers that have come through this city, if you’re not mentioning his name, then you are not in the know.”

Lyke’s days as a litigator may have ended, but his current role may be more important.

He knows that there aren’t many judges who look like him, and that allows him to “bring a different background, attitude, and life experiences to the bench.”

That is important in many ways, but particularly in a changing society where he says that he has never seen the “level of disrespect for the rule of law or for law enforcement as rampant as it is now.”

“Our nation is at a crossroads. As I look at the news and the internet and I see all this violence just permeating across the country, you have to hold people accountable or they will continue to do whatever they do,” says Lyke. “If there are no consequences to violence, if there are no consequences to breaking the law, there’s no consequences to disrespecting the law and those who are in charge of enforcing the law, we as a country are in trouble.”

And Lyke all too well knows the consequences of that violence.

In 2017 his son was struck by three stray bullets while attending a funeral for an old school friend. His son survived—with only a limp and some scars as a reminder of a close call.

Lyke didn’t let that tragedy change him, or the way he does his job.

“I wasn’t angry at the person who shot my son. In fact, as a Christian, I love him, too. Am I upset with him? Absolutely, I’m upset, but I don’t hate him,” he says. “I’m not angry at him, but I’m certain he has problems as well.”

That empathy is something he brings with him to every trial and shows to every defendant.

“I don’t judge anyone. I judge your actions, but I don’t know your backstory. I don’t know what brought you to one of the worst days of your life to appear in front of me. I think a good jurist is a person that can understand that and can weigh it all,” Lyke says. “There’s good in all of us, because that’s what I believe that my Lord and Savior has taught me, irrespective of what your actions were. You have to be held accountable for your actions, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad person.”

Lyke knows there’s too much crime, violence, and injustice in the world to fix in one courtroom.

But as long as he sits on the bench, justice will prevail in his courtroom—and young people who grew up like him will be able to look at Lyke and see what is possible.

“I didn’t have the highest LSAT score. My GPA was pretty high, but I didn’t come from Harvard or any place. Chicago-Kent gave a chance to the poor kid from Robert Taylor housing projects, who on many occasions had to get on the floor when bullets were flying,” he says. “When I would hear police sirens and bullets and people yelling and screaming and all that chaos, I had to mentally take myself out of there and dream about becoming a lawyer.”

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