by Long Hwa-shu
Lake County Circuit Court Associate Judge James Simonian would not have been on the bench if he had pursued his youthful ambition – to be a journalist.
Genial and affable, his honor recalled he was fascinated with journalism in high school. He was so serious about it that he took a job as an intern at the Lake County News-Sun in January 1984 when the paper was located in downtown Waukegan.
However, he made a career change he said after talking to an editor from Iowa who suggested that he should go to law school which he did of course.
“The editor told me that I can still be a journalist after going to law school,” Simonian avidly recalled in his office the other day at the Park City branch of the Lake County Circuit Court where he is a sitting judge handling traffic as well as arbitration cases.
“I was always fascinated by how arguments are made in a courtroom. There’s logic behind the law,” he said explaining, in part, of the switch.
After graduating from Waukegan High School East in 1982, he went to DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., where he received his B.A. in political science in 1986. He earned his law degree from Indiana University in 1989.
In that same year he joined Lake County State’s Attorney where he worked for more than 11 years, first under Fred Foreman and then Michael Waller.
As an assistant state’s attorney he handled among other things felony reviews, drug cases and criminal forfeitures. In 2001 he joined the law firm of his brother, Stephen, who also had been an assistant state’s attorney.
Stephen, four years older than he, also went to Waukegan East, Class of 1978. He received his law degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law.
The brothers, looking much alike, were a familiar sight in the corridors of the courthouse. Admiring glances were often cast their way when they were seen walking side by side. The brothers are descendants of immigrants from Armenia.
They practiced law together for nearly 10 years until James Simonian, now with 21 years of experience as a lawyer, was appointed an associate judge of the Lake County Circuit Court in December 2010.
Simonian, 50, was first assigned to the Round Lake Beach branch of the court to hear traffic cases and ordinance violations and later to the Small Claims Court and then to preside over arbitration.
Arbitration is required under Illinois law for monetary claims between $10,000 and $50,000 and is heard by three accredited attorneys. Simonian is one of three judges who make rulings on issues such as evidence prior to arbitration. He also conducts trials if the arbitrators’ decision is rejected.
Small Claims Court, on the other hand, handles claims less than $10,000. There was a heightened interest in small claims when Judge Simonian spoke on the subject at a recent meeting of the Lake County Property Investors Association. Many members are owners of rental properties. Collecting rent and seeking compensation for property damages are recurring issues for landlords. To appear in court after filing claims, he told them to bring with them pertinent evidence including records and photos.
“Do not try to talk and act like an attorney when you are not. Just be yourself,” he advised, pointing out that the result can be awkward when someone is pretending to be a lawyer.
As a judge, Simonian acknowledged that he enjoys his position and the respect given to him.
“I hope I deserve the prestige,” he added modestly.
Pointing to the heavy responsibility he carries as a judge, he said, “I realize I am given great power, and with that comes great responsibility which I must handle wisely and appropriately.”
“I also realize that my decisions affect hundreds of people daily in ways, big and small. In some cases we have wide discretion, and in other cases virtually none,” he pointed out.
To uphold impartiality and to avoid any possible hint of conflict of interest, he said he won’t allow his brother, for instance, to appear in his court for a client.
Simonian lives in Libertyville with his wife, Leslie, and her two grown children, a son and a daughter. Leslie works in food service in Lake Forest.
Looking back in his decision to choose law over journalism, he said, “I know I made the right decision for me to go into law.”
“I admire good writers and lawyers. Both professions are tough to get into these days, and I admire those who do it well and successfully,” he added.