CHAMPAIGN — A World War II Navy veteran who went from being a civil lawyer in a small Champaign firm to making his mark on the federal judiciary is being fondly remembered as a lover of the law with a sharp mind, a sharp wit and a willingness to share his knowledge with young attorneys.
Although blind and hard of hearing for the last few years, U.S. District Court Judge Harold Baker no doubt remained mentally vibrant by surrounding himself with younger people who wanted to learn and could make a good argument.
Until about a year ago, the 93-year-old continued to preside over prisoner-rights cases to help alleviate the burden of the high volume of those lawsuits on his colleagues in the Central District of Illinois.
“He was first and foremost a mentor. There are law clerks around the United States that can attest to that,” said Toni Judd, who served 31 years as Judge Baker’s court reporter, first at the Danville courthouse and later in Urbana.
Judge Baker died last week in his own Champaign home, just as he wished.
Dorothy, his wife of 72 years whom he affectionately dubbed “she who must be obeyed,” and his three successful children were nearby. He was just shy of his 94th birthday.
“He was one of the smartest people I ever met and he still had the best sense of humor. He was a great mentor for all of us,” said U.S. District Court Judge Sue Myerscough, now 71.
She served as a law clerk to Baker from 1980 to 1981, just two years after his 1978 appointment to the federal bench by President Jimmy Carter.
A judge herself for 36 years, 12 of them on the federal bench, Myerscough said Judge Baker “treated everyone equally and he didn’t hesitate to call out an injustice when he saw one. He didn’t put up with fools lightly in his courtroom.”
Judd said that in her role as the keeper of the record, her boss could read her body language if she was struggling to record a lawyer who was speaking too fast.
“Judge Baker would tell him to slow down. ‘She is good but she is not a racehorse.’ If we needed to go back and look at the record, he always said, ‘If she wrote it, I said it,’” she recalled.
Outside the courtroom, he was equally supportive, taking his staff out for lunch or a drink at the end of a particularly tough week, Judd said.
“He valued the opinions of others. I could argue with him. I liked the way he validated you,” Judd said.
Myerscough agreed, observing that he could be intimidating because he was so smart.
“But he didn’t make you feel stupid,” he said. “He helped you in the process. He demanded a lot of us as he did of himself. I don’t think anyone compares to his intellectual ability with the law.”
Baker’s professional accomplishments were many and honorable.
After getting his juris doctor from the University of Illinois in 1956, the former Navy lieutenant went to work in the Champaign firm of Wheat, Hatch and Corazza — a firm that produced several judges over the years — where he handled civil litigation for 22 years before his appointment to the bench.
He taught at the UI College of Law and helped launch the trial advocacy program that put law students in real courtrooms for practical experience. For more than 20 years, he served on an Illinois Supreme Court committee to help write the instructions that guide jurors to verdicts. Last year, the Champaign County Bar Association honored him as a “Pillar of the Bar.”
In 1975, he served in Washington, D.C., as a lawyer for the Rockefeller Commission looking into CIA activities within the U.S. From 1998 to 2005, he served as a member of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court, of which he never spoke to colleagues.
A young Arnold Blockman was clerking for an appellate justice in Springfield in 1975 when Baker hired him sight unseen on a recommendation.
Now retired from the Champaign County bench, Blockman said he knew nothing of his boss’s federal work outside the office.
“I was afraid if I knew anything, I would be assassinated,” he said while laughing.
“People don’t realize how good of a trial attorney he was. He was concise. He’d go right to the most important case. He was logical and always prepared and had great knowledge of the rules of evidence and a great sense of humor,” Blockman said.
Blockman said his friend was inadvertently responsible for him choosing to preside over family court.
“I was (at Baker’s law firm) maybe a year and Harold comes in and slams the door. I thought he was getting ready to fire me. He said, ‘You see all these gray hairs? It’s from family law.’ And he proceeds to throw all these files on my desk. He said, ‘I don’t want any money. I don’t want any questions. I don’t want to hear what happens. They are all yours.’ That piqued my interest in family law for the rest of my career,” Blockman said.
“He was quite a character and a really great guy and a good friend,” said Blockman, who visited his friend at his home just a week before his death and found him “really with it.”
Both Blockman and Myerscough raved about Judge Baker’s cooking skills. Myerscough said he taught her how to make beef Wellington.
She said that even though Judge Baker took senior status in 1994, he continued to work full-time, being compensated only with his pension for the next 28 years.
When she took the federal bench in 2011, Judge Baker was hearing all the prisoner-rights cases, which later were divided among all the judges in the district. Still, he continued to hear a large number to help his colleagues.
Federal judicial staff attorney Tony Martinez, who works for the district judges, got close to Judge Baker when the two of them shared office space in the Urbana courthouse beginning in 2017. They also had the bond of shared military service.
“We would trade barbs because he was in the Navy and I was in the Marines. The Marines are a department of the Navy, but you’ll never get a Marine to admit that,” he said with a laugh. “They call their ships ships and we call them boats.”
Martinez said he helped the judge with errands or anything else he needed at work.
“It wasn’t part of my job description but something I did. He was such a magnificent man. He couldn’t see that well and his hearing was failing him but his mind was top-notch. I respected him and I think he came to rely on me because of our shared military experience. We just take care of each other in that way,” said Martinez, who served as a Marine from 1983 to 2004 before earning his law degree in 2007 at the UI.
Myerscough said she recalled many a lunch date when Judge Baker, a military-history buff, would “be drawing battle plans on the table.”
U.S. District Court Judge Colin Bruce, a career federal prosecutor before becoming a judge in 2013, said Judge Baker frequently used nautical terms.
“He would say, ‘Officer on deck’ when I walked into his office or ‘You have the conn’ if he saw me as he was leaving for the day,” Bruce said.
The latter is a reference to turning over control of a ship’s bridge to another officer while at sea.
Bruce recalled a time when he was showing distinguished visitors around the courthouse and one of them, seeing a picture of Navy ships on Judge Baker’s office wall, asked if the judge saw combat.
“Judge Baker immediately replied with a smile, ‘Lots. And always in the Officers’ Club,’” Bruce said.
Bruce said once when he was once preparing for a difficult sentencing hearing, Judge Baker told him those are the hardest part of a judge’s job because neither side is happy.
“He said with a serious tone that sentencings can really wear any judge down. Then he stood up, cracked a mischievous grin and said, ‘And you have more than 10 years of sentencings to go. Well, good luck. Onward and upward!’ and he strolled out of my office. Sometimes when a sentencing is wearing me down, it makes me remember Judge Baker’s smile and ‘onward and upward.’”