INA, Ill. – The Honorable Mike D. McHaney has come a long way from making $1.90 an hour as a line boy at Mt. Vernon Outland Airport. He credits Rend Lake College as the place where he realized his potential. In two weeks, he will be honored with one of the college’s most important accolades.
McHaney been named the 2010 Rend Lake College Alumnus of the Year. The 1977 graduate of RLC spent 24 years arguing civil and criminal cases in front of judges in state and federal courts. Now, he’s the one on the bench and he’s loving every minute of it.
“Sitting on the bench is the greatest job I’ve ever had,” he said. “I look forward every single day to going to work. ... In every office I’ve had, like all of us, I hang my diplomas on the wall. I have always included my diploma from Rend Lake. I consider the [Alumnus of the Year] award to be a tremendous honor.”
Judge McHaney, 53, was appointed by the Illinois Supreme Court to the Fourth Judicial Circuit Court in July to fill a seat made vacant by the retirement of the Hon. Kathleen Moran. On Nov. 2, voters elected McHaney to one of three At-Large Circuit Judge positions.
“I preside over cases ranging from a speeding ticket to a first-degree murder trial, ... from a small claims case for money to a contested custody battle and everything in between. ... The hardest thing, I think, is deciding custody cases and issues dealing with children and minors.”
A little lesson in the state constitution from McHaney: The Illinois judicial system is made up of the Supreme, Appellate and Circuit Courts. Each circuit court, under the umbrella of its judicial district, has a different amount of judges. The 4th Judicial Circuit covers nine counties with 20 judges. An “at-large” position like McHaney’s is one of three in the circuit. Each “at-large” judge appears on the ballot in all nine counties while nine “resident” judges run for election on the ballot in his or her own county, and eight “associate” judges are appointed by the 12 resident and at-large judges. Resident circuit judges have additional administrative duties within their own counties. The Office of Chief Judge assigns judges to a particular county, or “call,” for a six month rotation.
McHaney’s last assignment was Clinton County’s civil docket. Every Wednesday, he presides over the juvenile docket in Marion County. To give an idea of what his workload looks like: The most recent data from the Illinois Supreme Court shows that in 2008, 66,056 cases were filed in the 4th Judicial Circuit for an average of 3,302 cases filed per judge. And to put public defense hours into perspective: McHaney said he’s at the dinner table more as a judge than he ever was as lead public defender.
“It’s a little easier to balance as a judge,” he said. “I’m lucky I’ve got great support.”
He lives in Salem with his wife, Laura. They have four children between the two of them: college students Timothy and Colin, who is serving in the Illinois National Guard; Meghan, a graduate student at University of Illinois; and recent Indiana University graduate Daniel, who just started his first job.
McHaney was first sworn in as a judge on June 16, 2006. Before that, he served nine years as the Marion County Lead Public Defender while continuing to run the private practice he had started as a fresh graduate from Southern Illinois University’s School of Law in Carbondale in 1982. He earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from SIUC in 1979. McHaney has provided lectures for RLC, Kaskaskia College and the People’s Law School. Other service and affiliations include Summersville Grade School Board Member, Illinois Judges Association, Illinois State Bar Association, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, American Bar Association and Illinois Lawyers for Criminal Justice. In 1985 he served as president of the Jefferson County Bar Association and was president of the Marion County Bar Association in 2003. He’s also published. In 1985, McHaney’s “How to Sue and Defend a Small Claims Case without a Lawyer” was published.
He grew up in Mt. Vernon. After graduating from Mt. Vernon Township High School in 1975, he enrolled at RLC. He said RLC was a good fit for him because he wasn’t ready for a four year university. Had he went straight to a university out of high school, he is sure he would have been a “lousy” student and wouldn’t have been accepted into law school, he added.
“Rend Lake made me ready to compete when I arrived at Southern. Because of what I learned at Rend Lake, and the education I got there, I graduated in the top 10 percent of my political science class [at SIUC] with a 3.86 GPA. Without that high GPA ... no law school. Without RLC ... no high GPA.”
He also liked RLC because it allowed him to go to school and work full time as a line boy at Mt. Vernon Outland Airport. It was a job that came with a lot of responsibility for a young man right out of high school.
“It was a great experience,” he said. “We would fuel all the airplanes and taxi them out of the hangars. I’ll never forget, my salary was $1.90 an hour.”
He’s saving some pearls for his Alumnus of the Year acceptance speech on Dec. 2, at the RLC Foundation’s Annual Dinner. But he did offer up one piece of advice for recent grads transferring to a university, current students, and new alumni heading into the workforce.
“You have to work as hard as you play. You have to have that balance. And work ethic is critical to success, no matter what you do. With a good work ethic, it’s yours for the taking. Without it, well, you just aren’t going to achieve your potential.”
He credited a number of RLC professors for helping him reach his potential. He named Richard Dougherty, Eleanor Hall, Vince Cain and Dr. Evelyn Claxton.
His mother said she will never forget the many, many mornings when she would get him to wake up and go to school by pulling on his toe while he was in bed.
“I can’t believe she said that,” McHaney laughed.
She also said Claxton was especially responsible for his success at RLC. It was Dr. Claxton, she said, who challenged him to do better in his writing. She was the “wake up call” to reach his potential.
“I’ll never forget the teachers I had at Rend Lake,” McHaney said. “[Claxton] just had a way of motivating you to reach your potential. She was instrumental ... her love of reading, language and writing.”
McHaney said his parents, Lon and Shirley McHaney, were the cornerstone to every milestone of his career – earning his degrees, cutting the ribbon on the Law Office of Michael D. McHaney, arguing his first jury trial, his first appellate court argument, being sworn in as a judge ... just name it.
“I am very fortunate to have great parents,” he said.
“Mike is such a great ambassador for Rend Lake College and education in general,” said RLCF CEO Pat Kern. “His life is rooted in education. His dad retired as principal of Dr. Andy Hall School in Mt. Vernon. His mom retired as the chair of our Allied Health Division here at the college. His sister is a high school teacher up in Lake Forest. It’s amazing they let him cut away and go after a career in law!”
McHaney said he loves being a judge and can’t think of any profession he’d rather do. As far as future plans go, he said, “We’ll just see what happens.”
From balancing an enormous case load as a public defender to hearing thousands of cases from the bench, McHaney is very concerned over what he calls the “cycle of poverty” in the region.
“That leads to a drain on social services. Abuse and neglect cases, crime, drug abuse and addiction; that’s what I’ve dealt with throughout my career ... the breakup of families. It’s all inter-related. To break that cycle – if there is a silver bullet – it’s got to be education. That’s got to be the start.”
All Illinois community college Alumnus of the Year award recipients are invited to the Illinois Community College Trustees Association’s state award recognition banquet in June. The ICCTA awards an overall state alumnus of the year at the ceremony.