The title sheriff does not conjure up visions of a warm, fuzzy humanitarian. The Sheriff of Nottingham made Robin Hood's life miserable just because Robin was trying to redistribute the wealth in Sherwood Forest. Sheriff Thomas (Blind Tom) O'Brien of Cook County in Illinois had perfectly good vision, except he could never see any of the illegal gambling that pervaded the county during his tenure. But the current Cook County sheriff, Thomas Dart, is giving a new image to the office.
In the autumn of 2008, Dart, 46, announced he would not carry out any more evictions tied to the large number of foreclosures in Cook County. It was a bold move since the sheriff's duties specifically include the obligation to enforce writs of eviction. Not all the judges whose writs he was refusing to execute shared his sense of outrage, and some of the banks and others seeking to evict the occupants of the foreclosed properties threatened to hold him in contempt of court. A complaint was filed with the state board that disciplines lawyers. Dart decided to stonewall all criticism.
"Most of those people being evicted had been given no process," he said. "This was the best way to get people to the table to start solving these problems rather than throwing kids out on the street."
It worked. After a few weeks, the courts hammered out a plan with the sheriff. Before eviction writs can be enforced, it must be shown that the people to be evicted have been told why it is happening and given an opportunity to solve the problem.
Dart is serving evictions again, but very few of them. And so much for the image of sheriffs as all gun and no heart.
Mikva is a retired chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit