URBANA — For just shy of 35 years, Jeff Ford has been driving himself to the same place for work. Today will be the last day he does it with a title and a robe.
The circuit judge had planned to see drug-court clients today, but the coronavirus has changed that. It’s also changed the way his co-workers and lawyers will get to say goodbye.
“I’m just out with a whimper,” said the 68-year-old, who was nursing what he believes is a common cold at home Tuesday, scurrying to finish orders in civil cases.
“A lot of these cases are so complicated and there’s so much research to do, that if I can do more orders, that’s that much less someone else has to do,” he said.
After today, he can’t enter orders as a judge.
His replacement has not been appointed yet and even before the state shut down to slow the surge of sickness, Supreme Court Justice Rita Garman said she wouldn’t be able to think about that until the end of March.
Judicial retirements are a big deal around the courthouse. They don’t happen that often and there’s usually always cake and punch and lots of hand-shaking and hugs.
“Just an elbow bump and a hearty goodbye,” is what Presiding Judge Tom Difanis has promised his friend and co-worker.
Difanis and Ford have been around the courthouse about the same amount of years.
Ford was an assistant state’s attorney under newly elected state’s attorney Difanis from 1976 to 1980, then left to go into private practice and teaching for about five years before being appointed an associate judge in 1985.
He held that post for 20 years until he was appointed a circuit judge in 2005 and was elected in 2006.
His last day will be spent helping drug court clients, just as he has for 20 years, but not in person.
“We are going to have a tele-med meeting on the drug court people, figuring out how they’re doing,” he said. “These are the people who need the constant monitoring and we haven’t had the ability to do that.”
He said the drug court team has been doing its best to stay in touch with the approximately 45 clients via email and phone.
The drug court folks had planned a going-away party for him at The Vineyard Church so clients could come say goodbye. That too, has been canceled.
But Ford has been buoyed by people coming up to him in the store since the January story about his retirement, thanking him for helping them or a loved one maintain sobriety.
“I’ve never been big on all the ceremony so it doesn’t much matter to me. It would be nice to see everybody,” admitted the judge, a father of two and husband of 40 years. “I don’t know if Barb will make cookies for me or not.”