URBANA — After 38 years in the legal profession, the last 15 of them on the federal bench at the U.S. District Courthouse in Urbana, Michael P. McCuskey has decided he'd like to scale back.
Come July 1, the veteran jurist will transition to senior status. He talked with News-Gazette courts reporter Mary Schenk about that recently.
What is senior status, and why do you want it?
Senior status means when you have 15 years of service and 65 years of age, you can take a reduced workload, and I certainly want to do that.
Having served as a judge at the state circuit court level, the Illinois appellate court and the federal court, do you have a preference for one?
My wife prefers the appellate court because it doesn't interfere whatsoever with family obligations. The federal court is the most hours, is the most time-consuming and limits family. I've enjoyed all of them. At this point in my life, I would prefer the pace of the appellate court. I like being in the middle of a trial. It's like being pitcher in a baseball game. You're in the middle of everything.
Have you seen a change in the last 15 years in focus of what cases are criminally prosecuted?
Yes. We didn't have methamphetamine and child pornography when I started. It's a total change in the types of crimes being prosecuted. The scary thing is how much of that went on 15 years ago that we didn't know about. It's the improvement of a lot more law enforcement officials (with) the resources to bring far more crimes to court. I've got more criminal cases now than I've ever had in my life, in any era, at any time. I'm overwhelmed, which is another reason for senior status.
What do you think about the federal sentencing guidelines promulgated in 1984 by Congress?
Judge (Harold) Baker came when they (judges) had total discretion. I came when they had no discretion and I was not aware that my discretion would be totally limited by Congress, even when I took the job. I didn't know how restrictive they were compared to the state system.
We have limited discretion, but because of mandatory minimum sentences, we still have no discretion. Congress has extremely high penalties so people come here that would get lower sentences if the case was in state court. I'm unhappy with that result. For example, the triple murder case in Danville results in a life sentence. I have mandatory life sentences for drug dealers who have never physically harmed any victims, and they're all treated the same. I had a guy who was driving a bus in a job in Chicago and had never done a day in jail. After his three-strike trial for three drug convictions, he went away for life thanks to Congress. I'll never forget that case. I have no choice. That's one I'll live with forever that is totally unfair.
Tell me about your work with your alma mater, Illinois State University.
I have been chair of the board of trustees since 2008. I'm serving my second six-year term. I was appointed in 2005 by the governor. Thanks to President Al Bowman, it's been a wonderful experience. He's probably the most popular president ISU has ever had and that makes the job wonderful. I'm glad to give back to my alma mater. (McCuskey got his undergraduate degree at ISU in education in 1970 and played baseball there.) Since January, we have been looking for a new president. We are about ready in May to conclude the process and select a president. We spend hundreds of hours, uncompensated.
As long as I'm happy with the new president, I will stay. In 2017, it will be up to the governor. Every six years the governor can keep you or take you out.
Do you have other civic commitments or do judicial ethics prevent you from doing much?
I go to the Rotary in Urbana, but I've told them I don't have any time for positions in the club. This is my fourth Rotary Club. I love to do moot court and have done that at several law schools and in other places. I like to do that and am allowed to do that. I got to sit in Pasadena, Calif, with the 9th Circuit and I sat with the 7th Circuit in Chicago. And another thing that takes a lot of my time is, I'm one of the judges who sits on the budget committee for the United States Courts. Chief Justice Roberts appointed me to the budget committee so you're happy to be there.
(McCuskey has also been active on several committees of the Illinois State Bar Association for the last 25 years.)
You are the living embodiment of a baseball fan. Is your son Ryan as passionate?
I did not push my son into baseball. It might be genetics. He has certainly been an avid baseball player and fan. He's a Phillies fan first. Ryan, 19, is a freshman at the University of Iowa. He did not apply at University of Illinois because he didn't want his mother to visit and he did not apply at ISU because he didn't want to walk around campus and have people say to him, "Is your father the chairman of the board of trustees?"
Tell me about the rest of your family.
I have a daughter, Melinda McCuskey, from another marriage who is 32 and lives in Peoria. I still at this age am not a grandfather. I have been married to Brenda 23 years. We were married the day I was sworn into the Illinois appellate court in Ottawa. (At the time, he was the youngest appellate judge in Illinois.) I proposed to her on the steps of the appellate court during the 1990 election. Ottawa had significance to me because that's where I taught and coached before I went to law school.
You had a health scare a few years back.
I got out of the hospital on my 56th birthday after having a heart attack in 2004. The best answer to success is managing stress since then. It sure is hard (to manage stress) with all the cases we've got.
What do you consider your two biggest cases as a federal judge?
Randy Steidl is the most rewarding to have ordered a new trial (for the convicted murderer from Paris, Ill.) and have Attorney General Lisa Madigan decide that there shouldn't be a new trial and to see him walk free and come into my courtroom to thank me. That's the most rewarding.
The one that got the most publicity early in my (federal) career was the fight at the football stadium in Decatur with the Rev. Jesse Jackson spending three days in my courtroom with national publicity.
You are a very open and outgoing person. Is there anything our readers don't know about you?
I've heard successful people say this: For all your personal success, all your public success, that your family suffers greatly because you're trying to give yourself to so many causes and so many things that you end up spending a lot less time with your family than you should. That's a regret.