DANVILLE — As a new Vermilion County circuit judge, Michael Clary grew frustrated when he saw the same faces coming before him on shoplifting, theft and other charges, that he, as the state's attorney, had prosecuted for those same offenses, often repeatedly.
In many of those cases, the underlying problems were drugs and alcohol.
That prompted Clary to look for another solution to help people address their addiction, get out of the criminal justice system and lead productive lives. His research led him to work with treatment providers, probation officials and other courthouse staff to establish the county's drug court program.
Colleagues said drug court, now in its 12th year, and two other intensive supervision programs — family treatment court and mental health court — will be his legacy. Clary is stepping down from the bench at the end of October.
"He's been very forward-thinking in his approach to the law and the discharge of his responsibilities," said Illinois Supreme Court Justice Rita Garman, who will soon be chief justice. "I wish him well."
Clary's last day was Friday, though he plans to be back in the office tying up a few loose ends between now and Oct. 31. His retirement will cap a 34-year career in law, the last 15 as a judge and the last four as the county's presiding judge. Circuit Judge Craig DeArmond began his four-year run as presiding judge on Oct. 1.
Clary's post hasn't officially been declared vacant yet. But Garman already said she has no plans to appoint a replacement and anticipates it will be filled in the next general election.
"Generally, my practice is to confer with the presiding judge of the area," Garman explained. "I talked to Judge DeArmond, and he did not anticipate they would be asking us to fill the position."
Clary, 59, of Danville, said serving in the judiciary has been "the best job in the world." But, he decided to retire to give someone else a chance to serve and "use their talents to decide cases."
Clary grew up on a dairy farm east of Danville. After helping his parents tend to cows and pigs and clean barns, he decided to seek out a different profession, and while attending Danville Junior College, turned to law.
After earning his law degree from Southern Illinois University in 1979, he returned home to work as an assistant state's attorney at the Vermilion County Courthouse. The young prosecutor handled all kinds of cases including a memorable juvenile case, in which the parents of conjoined twins were accused of trying to starve them to death.
After a few years, Clary went into private practice and ran his own firm from 1987 to 1992. Around the time he launched his practice, Paul Manion, who was with the county's Democratic central committee, asked him to run for state's attorney.
"He told me, 'If you run and win, you'll be state's attorney. If you lose, you'll get a lot of publicity for your business,'" Clary recalled with a chuckle, adding that was his first foray into politics.
While he lost to DeArmond, the incumbent, that year, Clary beat him in 1992. As the county's top prosecutor, Clary's office handled hundreds of cases each year, including a number of very violent cases. He personally handled half of the 36 murder cases that went to trial during his tenure.
"As an opponent he wasn't a shouter or a table-pounder. But he didn't have to be. He was very effective just being himself," said Robert McIntire, a former longtime Vermilion County public defender and now in private practice.
"That carried over when he became a judge," McInitre continued. "He always had a fine judicial temperament. And he was very decisive with his rulings. He didn't make many mistakes. On the rare occasion he did, he was willing to acknowledge it right away and go back and fix it."
Two of Clary's most memorable cases as state's attorney moved forward without the defendant being present. One involved former Ludlow school Superintendent Dennis Catron, who was charged with sexually abusing a 13-year-old boy and fled the country to avoid prosecution. In 2011, Catron, who was convicted of aggravated criminal sexual abuse in absentia, was captured in Thailand, brought back to Illinois and put in prison, after nearly 19 years on the run.
The other involved Richard White, also known as Richard Shotts, whom authorities said built a bomb that exploded outside the Oakwood United Methodist Church in December 1997, killing Brian Plawer; another that exploded at the First Assembly of God Church in Danville in May 1998, injuring 34 people; and a third that detonated in his Danville garage later that month, killing him.
"That was quite an ordeal," Clary recalled, adding it required many agencies to work together. "The FBI and ATF were very cooperative in trying to help us have closure and assure everybody he was the guy and the case was closed. But the U.S. Attorney's office was not, which made it difficult."
When a new resident judge position was created in 1998 to help with the backlog of cases in the county, Clary decided to run. After beating his opponent by 13 votes, he got to don the black robe.
He admits the transition from prosecutor to judge wasn't as easy as he expected.
"You're used to being an advocate and having a very specific point of view and fighting tooth and nail on an issue," said Clary, who enjoyed giving closing arguments at trials and trying to persuade the jury. "When you're a judge, you're not the advocate any more. You have to listen and give careful consideration to all points of view and make a decision."
Each year, Clary presided over hundreds of cases from speeding tickets and dog bites to medical malpractice cases, child custody disputes and murder cases.
"There's usually someone who's not happy with the final outcome," he acknowledged. "But you are resolving a case or solving a dispute. I always took satisfaction in knowing that's been done and whatever the outcome, people can move on from there."
In addition to helping launch the special court programs, Clary helped introduce the Vermilion County Legal Self-Help Center website, to help low-income people get access to legal forms and information. He also was involved in a judicial performance evaluation program and served as a peer judge to four current judges.
"He's been a real mentor," said Derek Girton, an associate judge for more than three years. "He was very generous in his time and expertise. But he never was a person to push his opinion or knowledge on you. He was just a great resource to all of us."
Clary is eager to step away from criminal justice system and work out at his family farm and tackle projects that his wife, Dana, has in store for him. He also plans to stay involved AMBUCS. But, he said, he will miss the people at the courthouse and those from various agencies that he's worked with.