Memories of Top Election Law Attorney Mike Lavelle

Illinois’ most prominent election law attorney died this week.

His name was Mike Lavelle and the case which gave him national attention in 2000 in the Florida recount fight between George Bush and Al Gore was one he won in 1990.

That’s when he represented my friend Penny Pullen in her bid to overturn the apparent electoral primary victory of Rosemary Mulligan, who was strongly backed by the pro-abortion Personal PAC. I and others spend days at the Cook County Clerk’s warehouse looking for ballots that might show a preference for Penny. Below are her memories of Lavelle. She doesn’t say it, but Lavelle is among the the in last pro-life Democrat Illinois.

The end of an era in Illinois politics … the passing this week of election attorney Michael Lavelle from this earth.

He was simply the best at what he did. And what he did was to know Illinois election law inside and out; he had written much of it during his days at the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners and as a founding member of the State Board of Elections.

He knew the pluses and minuses of voting equipment, the ins and outs of petition law … every angle a public official or citizen might need to explore to resolve a disputed election.

And for a Chicago-born Democrat, he was a good and honest man, from everything I saw of him.

For years I would see Mike Lavelle in the Illinois House chamber, usually advising one of the leading Democrats or offering his expertise in committee testimony. But though I was very much a partisan Republican, he always had a ready smile and a wave for me. We seemed to hold mutual respect as two people for whom politics was an honorable contest. (Those were the days!)

When I faced the necessity of filing for a recount in the 1990 GOP primary, having come up short by 31 votes – supposedly – on election day, I consulted friends while casting about for a good attorney. One of those friends mentioned Mike Lavelle, and I said, “Of course! Why didn’t I think of him?!” He already, in 1990, had a reputation as Illinois’s leading election lawyer. What I didn’t realize was that he had never taken a case for a Republican.

But he took my case and many other Republicans after me. And for me, he was just the advocate I needed.

We established case law in Illinois that year for the recounting of punchcard ballots, and some of the principles we established in the state supreme court are applicable even today, though punchcards have been replaced by electronic scan and touchscreen devices. Our case was cited also in the Bush v. Gore recount in Florida.

It was a six-month process, in which Mike supervised our volunteers monitoring the actual recount and then researched, prepared and argued the points of law which would assist the courts in determining which candidate had actually won.

I will never forget the day I sat in Judge Francis Barth’s courtroom and watched him create a tie vote by ruling on various questions in a way that he knew would produce a tie. Nor will I forget the calm and reassuring way Mike coached me to address the media after that gut-wrenching experience.

I won’t forget watching him present oral arguments in our case at the Illinois Supreme Court; I wasn’t there because with Mike handling the case, I didn’t need to be looking over his shoulder. But his presentation to the court was telecast live by public television across the state. So watching from afar, I was spellbound by his effectiveness in making total sense out of a rather arcane field of the law and in suggesting how the court could effect justice from a highly contentious situation. I say this about very few people, but about Mike it is true:

He was awesome.

I will always remember Mike’s kindness and generosity in hosting some 30 volunteers – and me – at a rooftop party across from his beloved Wrigley Field to watch his (and my) beloved Cubs.

I will always remember his long-planned trip to Ireland in the midst of trial preparation for our case. He searched for hours for a fax machine in rural Ireland (back in 1990) so he could receive, review and revise a voluminous brief while “on vacation.”  What a guy – worth every cent of the considerable fee my faithful contributors furnished me to pay him.

And I will never forget the confidence I had in knowing we truly would find out the actual outcome of the primary, because I had thankfully landed the best lawyer there is, and when one’s career and one’s driving principles are on the line, it’s a great comfort to have the best fighting at your side. Though “conventional wisdom” had said we couldn’t overcome a 31-vote deficit in a punchcard recount, we won the case, showing that I had indeed won the primary, and I had two more years of fighting for the taxpayers in Springfield.

I am sad to realize I cannot again find him on election night when a friend is needing a lawyer, or call on him to help a friend whose petitions are being challenged. (I recall one such situation where the challenge was dropped as soon as the other side learned that Mike Lavelle was on the case.) I cannot be anything but glad for him, though, to be released finally from the debilitating illness that he battled so long, to be received, as I expect he has been just this week, into the arms of his loving Lord.

No question about it. Mike Lavelle was one of a kind. He was simply and elegantly the best.


Memories of Top Election Law Attorney Mike Lavelle — 3 Comments

  1. Penny and Cal,

    The words in this tribute bring tears to my eyes. Thank you so much for sharing the stories and kind words.

    Michael E Lavelle Jr.

  2. My first legal job was for Mr. LaVelle after my first year of law school. I will always remember not only how professional and intelligent he was, but also how giving and patent he was. Truly a great man who will be missed.

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