ROCKFORD — The “singing judge” is exiting stage left after 31 years in the legal field but already is preparing for his second act.
Circuit Judge Edward Prochaska, known around the Winnebago County Courthouse by that moniker because of his love of musical theater, is retiring after 22 years as an associate and circuit judge in Winnebago and Boone counties. His six-year term expires this weekend and he opted not to run for another stint. Associate Judge John Lowry was elected in November to fill Prochaska’s seat.
“I love my job as a judge and I always have,” said Prochaska, who turns 65 on Christmas Eve. “A really good time for a judge to retire is at the end of a term. I personally feel if you’re an elected official you should serve your entire term.”
His wife, Lora, retired six years ago from Rockford Public Schools, where she worked as an early childhood teacher. Prochaska said he wants to spend more time with her.
“But I didn’t want to completely give it up,” he said of his legal work.
He has joined Resolute Systems in Chicago, an arbitration and mediation firm. He said he hopes to begin working in dispute resolution in April, when he and his wife return from three months in Scottsdale, Arizona. He plans to work from the Winnebago County Alternative Dispute Resolution Center, which is affiliated with the 17th Judicial Circuit and where mediators can see clients.
“All I have to do is what I love to do: try to get parties to settle cases,” Prochaska said, noting it saves money by avoiding a trial. “It helps parties bring about an amicable solution that satisfies both parties to the case.”
Medical negligence trials, he said, can involve lawyers paying $100,000 to bring in experts to testify.
His new website, Prochaskamediation.com, will become operational on Saturday.
Prochaska’s legal career began in November 1987. Before becoming a judge, he worked as a lawyer with Hinshaw & Culbertson in Rockford. He handled insurance defense litigation involving car crashes and medical negligence claims.
It was in defending these cases that Prochaska said he was able to see judges in action and decide to pursue that career.
“I began to appreciate the importance of the job of making sure that justice is done,” he said.
Prochaska has presided over 214 jury trials. Of these, 75 were criminal cases. He served for 3½ years as a judge in Boone County, but the bulk of his time on the bench has been in Rockford. His courtroom style is part judge, referee and father figure.
He said he handled between 300 and 400 judicial settlement conferences as a judge, with an approximately 80 percent success rate in reaching an agreement. He likened it to “mediation while wearing a black robe.”
While his passion is arbitration and mediation work, the judge finds joy in singing.
Prochaska sang with the Kantorei children’s choir and for the past 15 years has been with the Mendelssohn Chorale in Rockford. He and his daughter, Jenna Prochaska, 30, of Chicago, have performed together in Rock Valley College Starlight Theatre productions, as well.
“He always had the leads and I was in the chorus,” said his daughter, a lawyer with the Legal Assistance Foundation in Chicago.
She said her father’s career path and dedication to public service influenced her decision to become a lawyer.
“I try to emulate…his compassion and ability to really listen to people and hear people. That makes him very effective in the courtroom and (in) advocacy,” Jenna Prochaska said.