DECATUR — While the courtroom hearings have concluded and the legal battle to determine whether Macon County Sheriff Tony Brown, a Democrat, retains his position or Republican challenger and fellow officer Lt. Jim Root takes over for the remainder of the term is, in some ways, just beginning.
Both Brown and Root appeared in a Macon County courtroom on Thursday, Feb. 11 in a final scheduled hearing before Judge Anna M. Benjamin, who was brought in from Champaign County to preside over these hearings.
Christopher Sherer of the Springfield law firm Giffin, Winning, Cohen and Bodewes has been representing Brown in this case. Root’s legal counsel is John Fogarty from Chicago’s Clark Hill PLC, who currently serves as the general legal counsel for the Illinois Republican Party.
Both Sherer and Fogarty agreed that the last phase of their battle will be settled by Benjamin via written arguments that follow, acknowledging that it was the best way to conclude this case rather than prolonging a stand-up fight before the judge.
“What we are going to provide you is frankly ballot by ballot argument either for or against counting those ballots,” said Fogarty, addressing Benjamin. “It seems that would be a much better process if we put that in writing.”
“Your honor, I certainly agree,” said Sherer.
Among these arguments are dozens of disputed individual ballots from the heavily contested sheriff’s race in 2018, which originally was decided by a single vote to Brown.
Root is debating pressing Benjamin to consider two extra votes that were cast for him that were later discovered — and uncounted — in a ballot tabulating machine.
However, the proceedings that will follow to sort this out will take weeks, if not months. At some point, Benjamin will render a decision on the matter.
Thursday’s heard testimony from two election judges which consumed the majority of the morning. Benjamin stated that both lawyers will have the opportunity to come back and make further pleadings. in person if necessary. Fogarty said that expediting this case as quickly as possible was of utmost importance, as it is an election race now receding into history.
“Of course we would love to argue further, but we don’t want to belabor this process,” Fogarty noted. “It’s gone on a long time.”
Both candidates spoke following the hearing, stating they were patient, confident and ready to wait for the wheels of justice to grind in their direction.
“I feel good,” said Brown. “I am glad that this is coming to a close and so I am going to continue to do the job I am doing.”
Brown also acknowledged that “close” may still be several months away, but he isn’t obsessing over that while serving as sheriff.
“I am focused on the job I’ve been elected to do, and that is what I am going to continue to do,” Brown added. “I put the community and the office before everything else; this is a process (the court case) and we’ll continue doing what we have to do.”
Root shared a feeling of assurance about the case.
“I still feel good about it (the election challenge),” Root said. “I would like to finish the process and get it over with but we’re looking at the end of March before anything moves on this.”
The long road to resolve the race began when Brown was declared the victor, securing 19,655 votes to Root’s 19,654. Root mounted a legal challenge, which would ultimately result in a court-ordered hand recount last July. The recount boosted Brown’s victory margin by 18 additional votes, but also revealed dozens of disputed ballots. Root’s case has been arguing potential voter and election fraud, which is contested by Brown. Brown maintains that he won the 2018 election fair and square.
Former Macon County Clerk Stephen Bean has openly admitted in a prior court testimony that he had simply forgotten about the two uncounted ballots for Root found in the voting machine. However, Bean maintains that he was not aware of any potential ballot tampering. Bean also stated that if mistakes were made, it was a result of human frailty and equipment-related malfunctions.
Benjamin scheduled a follow-up conference via telephone with all parties for March 5, which should allow the lawyers enough time to receive all court hearing transcripts and to sort out a schedule for written closing arguments.This story was previously published in the February 17, 2021 print editions of the Golden Prairie News and Blue Mound Leader. An update in the digital version of this story reflects that Bean maintained that he was not aware of any potential ballot tampering, not Root.
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Jake Leonard, a broadcast media and journalism veteran, is the editor-in-chief of Heartland Newsfeed. Leonard is also GM and program director of Heartland Newsfeed Radio Network, wrestling editor and contributing writer for Ambush Sports, a contributing writer for My Sports Vote and Midwest Sports Network, and a former contributor to Bleacher Report and Overtime Heroics. He resides at home in Nokomis, Ill. with his dog Buster.