Profile: Judge William D. O’Neal
IPSN Oct. 12, 1997
Judge William D. O’Neal, one of the Cook County Circuit Court’s most effective and down-to-earth jurists came up through the ranks the old-fashioned way, that is, his attainments in life are the result of a strong work ethic and perseverance against tough odds.
We hear a lot these days about waste, inefficiency, judicial corruption, and a harried, thinly stretched criminal court system bursting at the seams under the crushing weight of crowded dockets, but not nearly enough about the unsung heroes who move this system along, quietly but with great diplomacy and skill. Bill O’Neal is one such hero of the county judiciary.
Judge O’Neal was elected to the bench in 1992, and he has dispensed justice in a firm but impartial manner from his courtroom in the 6th Municipal District in Markham for the past five years.
Attorneys who appear before him praise his gentlemanly, even-handed disposition. His is a flexible call. Judge O’Neal hears a variety of paternity, divorce, collections, forcible detainer, and criminal cases these days. For a time he was assigned to the felony misdemeanor section as a supervising judge by Presiding Judge Sheila M. Murphy who worked with O’Neal back in the 1970s in the public defender’s office. William O’Neal was returned to his original call in January of this year after the attorneys who knew and respected his work in Markham requested it.
“Judge O’Neal is a very humble man and the consensus of opinion among the legal community is that he is very fair minded,” comments Sheila Murphy, who left the public defender’s office in 1978. Murphy was a criminal defense lawyer for 10 years before winning her judgeship in 1989. “He does a wonderful job with truancy cases and the housing call,” Murphy adds. “Housing cases are particularly difficult in the 6th District, but both landlords and tenants seem to respect his impartiality and fairness.”
His real expertise however, is in the civil realm. O’Neal is a former IRS agent who is seeking an appellate judgeship in the next election. “Because of my background as an IRS agent who worked on a lot of tax cases and as a pension and profit sharing examiner, I believe my skills lend themselves to the appellate court,” he told the IPSN.
O’Neal is the son of Tennessee sharecroppers who migrated to Mounds, Illinois, a segregated community hugging the Kentucky border, when he was only one-year-old. After a four-year hitch in the Air Force, he moved to Chicago in 1960 to take a job in the post office. His boyhood and early career were a struggle. Nothing was handed to him on a silver platter at a time when the nation was just beginning to come to grips with the deeper meanings of the civil rights movement.
He attended Wilson Junior College and DePaul University while working in the post office and caring for a young daughter. In 1967, with an accounting degree in hand, O’Neal went to work for the IRS full time. Later that year he enrolled in Chicago-Kent College of Law. It was a tough, demanding schedule, but O’Neal set his sights on higher goals in life. A year after graduating from Chicago-Kent in 1972, he went to work for the Cook County public defender’s office.
“I was assigned to Judge Earl E. Strayhorn’s courtroom from 1973 until 1976,” O’Neal adds. Admittedly, it was quite an education for a young assistant public defender. Judge Strayhorn, a flamboyant figure on and off the bench is famous for the dozens of high profile cases that have passed through his courtroom at 26th and California over the years. A no- nonsense, sometimes uncompromising veteran of the bench since 1970, Strayhorn, as a mentor to O’Neal, recognized talent and ambition in this up-and-coming public defender, and he personally encouraged him to pursue higher goals in life.
After leaving the public defender’s office in 1976, O’Neal went into private law practice in Harvey, his home base. He has served on the local school board in Harvey, and represented clients in every imaginable avenue of the law. His practice brought him into close contact with the community – some of the residents who came to him for help and protection were poor, uneducated, and uninformed about their rights under the law.
O’Neal is most concerned about the truancy problem in the south end of the county, and over the course of the last five years he has made it a personal crusade to reach out to youth and counsel them about the importance of an education in a heavy schedule of speaking engagements he maintains at area schools. He speaks to dozens of community groups about deficiencies in the truancy system and the need for reform; a controversial stance for any judge to take but he believes passionately in the cause.
Now Judge O’Neal is hoping that the voters of Cook County will take note of his accomplishments and elect him to the Appellate Court in 1998. Two years ago, he finished third in a field of five candidates. This time it will be even more of an uphill battle. O’Neal expects that there will be a field of seven, possibly eight candidates vying for two openings on the Appellate Court. One of the candidates in the March 17 primary will likely be his friend and colleague Judge Sheila Murphy.
O’Neal he is a patient man, and he knows that his experience, competence, and personal integrity will be recognized by the informed electorate of Cook County, sooner if not later.