Judge Walter Brandon Jr. looked as placid as a pond, as he had all day, while he waited for the next case to begin in St. Clair County’s juvenile justice courtroom. Everyone who was supposed to be there was there except the one person for whom the hearing had been called.
It was 1:43 p.m. Tuesday, August 25, and it had already been a long day. Brandon had the court skip lunch so he could get through the afternoon docket.
Finally, 15 minutes late, an East St. Louis man rushed into the courtroom and into a mess. The man was launching a last-ditch effort to gain custody of his two children, 10 months and 2 years old. They had been living in foster care while their mother, a drug addict, sat in a St. Louis jail and their father tried to turn his life around after a stint in prison.
The father was lucky the hearing had been called at all. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) had failed to follow a court order issued by Brandon granting custody of the children to their maternal grandmother. The department disobeyed the order so the father could have another chance to do a set of assessments, including one for domestic violence, that he had repeatedly ignored over the previous two years.
“Now he knows the department isn’t playing,” a DCFS representative testified.
The father had a few things in his favor: He had a job and acquired a car. And a home inspection didn’t turn up any bottles of alcohol in his yard. He, however, couldn’t offer a coherent explanation for his continued defiance of the mandatory assessments, other than he didn’t understand why he had to do them.
“So sir, basically you have not done anything on the service plan,” Brandon said.
What to do? Should Brandon give the children to the father, leave them in foster care, or grant custody to the grandmother, who lives hours away in Tennessee?
These are the imperfect decisions that Brandon ’82, M.S. ’84, faces all day, every day in cases of child custody, child abuse and neglect, and juvenile delinquency.
“You want to get the kid integrated back into the home if at all possible,” Brandon said, back in his office. Jazz pumped from a radio behind his desk and a mechanical waterfall rumbled soothingly nearby. “But our main premise is what is in the child’s best interest.”
Despite being a serial witness to human and institutional error, misbehavior, and short-sightedness—sometimes all in the same case—Brandon rarely betrayed any sign of frustration. When the father offered his business cards in the middle of the hearing to everyone in the courtroom, without any prompting or logical tie to the case, the judge didn’t chastise him or laugh. Brandon just said that as the judge he couldn’t accept the card.
“People come from different situations and circumstances. Sometimes it takes people a long time to get an understanding,” Brandon said. “My whole focus is the best interests of the children.”
Brandon handles an average of 500 cases a year as the main juvenile court judge in St. Clair County. He has served in the post since 2008.
“My mission in life is to be a servant,” he said. “Our time here is short. So you got to seize the moment. And try to make a difference in somebody’s life. I deal with a lot of situations, and circumstances, and problems that kids have.
“This is one courtroom where you can really make a difference in the future.”
It’s a heavy job that he wears light. Brandon keeps in mind a saying he learned at Illinois State: “You feel the way you feel because you think the way you think. Change the way you think, and you change the way you feel.” He finds solace in his Christian faith—his wife is a minister—and a daily exercise regimen.
“I pray a lot. I can’t get inside of someone else’s mind. What is rational to me is not rational to them,” he said. “A lot of people deal with trauma. I can’t change that, but I can apply kindness and try to put the services in place so that won’t be their future. So that’s the way I look at it.”
Back in court, it was 3:07 p.m. A pole-thin 17-year-old in shackles stood awkwardly in front of the judge. The boy pleaded guilty to pushing a relative in his home and pleaded with the judge not to put him in juvenile detention, even though he had missed an earlier court date. He said he wouldn’t be able to find a job or go back to school behind bars.
Brandon warned him to follow court orders this time.
“If you decide not to, we are going to lock you down,” Brandon says. “We will find you if you run.”
Moments later a second teen stumbled forward in handcuffs. The scrawny kid, 16, with an empty face and a T-shirt with the No. 3 on the back, was tied to an assortment of crimes: breaking into an East St. Louis home, stealing a GPS system from a car, possessing a stolen vehicle, giving police a fake name. He pleaded guilty and was detained until his next court date.
Brandon said he makes sure each juvenile defendant undergoes mental health and substance abuse evaluations. He tries to provide services up front—even though budget cuts are making that more difficult—so the teens don’t end up in felony court as adults.
“I want to protect the community. The best way to protect the community is to make that individual feel that they don’t have to do what they did to come in here,” Brandon said.
Brandon grew up in East St. Louis, a St. Clair County town along the Mississippi River, that has long been synonymous with crime and urban decay. Many of Brandon’s friends went to college or the military; others ended up in prison.
Now he works in Belleville, an old German town that serves as the seat of a county of 265,000. Belleville has its share of problems, but it is light years from the apocalyptic landscape of East St. Louis and its troubled neighboring communities. There daytime gunfights, blocks of vacant lots and blown-out homes, and a desperate sense of abandonment pervade.
“Any time you are looking at the inner city, there is a lot going on,” Brandon said. “Lack of resources. Like right now, we have a lot of youth who don’t have the mentors, don’t have the guidance. You have the stuff that is going on in Ferguson. A lot of people have problems. A lot of people are hurting. I have to have that ear: to decide what is right and what is wrong and apply the law.”
Similar racial, poverty, and law enforcement issues that added fuel to the protests and rioting across the river in Ferguson, Missouri, are also present in St. Clair County.
“You still have the same issues. You still have the allegation of racial profiling. It’s the same thing, but it just hasn’t blown to that proportion in St. Clair County,” Brandon said. “It’s a good thing that it hasn’t, because then you have more poor people who will find themselves dead.
“I do believe you have individuals in the communities who are working to try to stop that. But I think more needs to be done. You have a lot of juveniles out here, man, that don’t have the guidance.”
Brandon learned a lot from his father, a former East St. Louis police lieutenant involved in his local union. Brandon grew up working in the trenches of city politics. He pursued those interests at Illinois State, earning a bachelor’s in political science and a master’s in criminal justice.
“Like most students, I didn’t have any idea what I was going to do,” he said. “I wanted to change the world. I wanted to help people. Saw there was a need, and we had to roll up our sleeves.”
Brandon started in sociology and took business and philosophy classes. It wasn’t until later he thought of criminal justice, thinking there was a lot of employment in that area. “The one thing about it was crime wasn’t deteriorating,” he said.
Accepted into the University provisionally, he worked his way through school at the Bone Student Center and selling hot dogs and soda on the Quad. He honed patience with tasks like using a toothbrush to clean crevices in student union elevators.
Brandon served with several committees and organizations, including the Academic Senate and the Pi Beta chapter of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity. He maintains strong campus ties through the Black Colleagues Association and the Attorneys Advisory Board, and is a season ticketholder for Redbird football.
“I had a great experience there,” he said. “I met a lot of good people.”
Brandon attended law school at Southern University in Louisiana. The historically black school encouraged students to serve their communities after graduation. “So I came back to do exactly that,” Brandon said.
He served as a prosecutor in St. Clair County State’s Attorney’s office before moving into the Public Defender’s office. He then worked as a civil attorney for the locally prominent Cueto law firm. He started a private practice and represented East St. Louis’ municipal government and neighboring Centreville for a time in the 1990s.
Brandon was appointed an associate judge in 1997. He requested the juvenile court post after years in adult courts because it is where he thought he could do the most good.
“It’s challenging when you have to take kids,” he said. “You give birth to them, then I take them away.”
That’s the choice Brandon had that August afternoon. Things weren’t going well for the man who was trying to get custody of his two children. Leaving them in foster care also didn’t seem like a good option, especially considering the caretakers weren’t allowing the judge’s monitors into the home to see the children.
The grandmother pleaded her case to Brandon and described a bureaucratic nightmare. She was supposed to get the children a year ago but that got delayed once the father became aware of her plans. When she was finally granted custody, DCFS failed to act on Brandon’s order that would have allowed her to take the children out of their home state.
“I’ve done everything that I’ve known to do,” she said.
The children’s guardian ad litem advocated for her: “The kids should be placed with their grandmother.” Brandon agreed and restarted the legal process of granting her permission to take the children out of Illinois.
The father apologized to the grandmother as he left the courtroom: “I hope you get them.”
Brandon turned to his clerk and said, “All right, go to the next one.”