Though many people are remembered for their personal achievements, the truly great individuals—those who are recalled fondly and for a long time—are those who bring out the best in others. Judge Harold A. Baker '56, who died on September 18, certainly was that kind of person. In every memorial and obituary written, those who knew him have recalled his ability to elevate those around him to their best selves.
“He treated younger people, including me, as sitting at the table right there with him,” Richard Pope ’79 recalled about Baker. “He had more experience, and there were times when he pulled rank of course, but…he considered you to be an equal.
“He was fair. He treated everybody with respect: every party, every lawyer, every juror.”
Baker was born in Mt. Kisko, NY, on October 4, 1929, but came to Illinois to finish his bachelor’s degree and made a home here. He graduated in 1951 and enlisted in the Navy, serving two years during the Korean War, reaching the rank of Lieutenant on the destroyer USS Watts. After his service, he earned his JD in 1956 and worked in private practice for more than 20 years.
He gave back to his alma mater by serving as an adjunct professor at Illinois from 1972 to 1978, including work with another future federal judge, Prentice Marshall, to create the trial advocacy program. President Jimmy Carter appointed him as judge for the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Illinois in 1978, and soon after his confirmation the courts were rearranged so that he served the Central District of Illinois.
He would spend the next 44 years on the bench in some capacity, becoming Chief Judge of the Central District in 1984 and Senior Judge from October 1994 until January 2022. Additionally, Baker served a seven-year term on the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court from 1995 to 2005, having been appointed by Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
During his time as a judge, he earned a reputation as more than just a good colleague. In 1987, he ruled that Springfield’s commission government was in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act, which ended the mayor-and-four-commissioners governance of the city that had elected no Black individuals from 1911 to 1987. He also took prisoner rights cases much more seriously than was common for his time, going so far as visiting the Pontiac Correctional Facility to examine conditions first-hand. His belief in humanity of incarcerated individuals led to decisions that would become part of law review literature.
“He never lost sight of the fact that these people in the prison remained human,” said Pope, remembering Baker’s actions.
Hollywood even took notice of Baker’s decisions, as his role as judge in the lysine price-fixing conspiracy case against Archer Daniels Midland was later immortalized on the silver screen in 2009’s “The Informant!” Baker was played by Dick Smothers, one half of the famous Smothers Brothers comedy team, in the film.
However, for all hose individual accolades and career achievements, Baker is best remembered for his personality and gracious spirit.
In the News-Gazette’s memorial, U.S. District Court Judge Sue Myerscough described Baker as “one of the smartest people I ever met."
A law clerk to Baker in the early 1980s, overlapping with Pope in his office, Myerscough also recalled Baker “treated everyone equally and he didn’t hesitate to call out an injustice when he saw one. He didn’t put up with fools lightly in his courtroom.”
Fellow Illini judges Arnold F. Blockman ’73, who served the Sixth Circuit of Illinois, and Colin Bruce ’89, who served on the Central District bench with Baker beginning in 2013, both hailed Baker for his collegiality.
“He was quite a character and a really great guy and a good friend,” said Blockman.
“Sometimes when a sentencing is wearing me down, it makes me remember Judge Baker’s smile and ‘onward and upward,’” said Bruce.
Everyone who came into Baker’s orbit will remember the man for a long time, such was the nature and strength of his personality. Pope, who had a life-long relationship with Baker extending far beyond his time as a clerk for the young judge, credits him with lessons that shaped a career.
“Harold showed me what the finest lawyer, judge, and human could be. He saw something in me that he liked and valued,” Pope said. “That confidence in me, from someone I admired, helped me gain and keep confidence in myself. I’m sure there are many others he mentored that feel the same way.”