News Gazette Article Featuring Newest Judge, Matthew Lee

Champaign County’s judicial holiday parties may get a little livelier this year.

The county’s newest judge has been playing electric guitar since he was 11.

“A Fender Telecaster, American made,” Matthew D. Lee said of his instrument, which accounts for most of his free time when he’s not working or with his wife and three sons.

Lee, 43, an attorney at one of the area’s pre-eminent law firms, has been selected by the circuit judges of the Sixth Circuit to serve as an associate judge.

When he’s sworn in Feb. 25, the Champaign County bench will be back to its full strength of 11: five associate judges and six elected circuit judges.

Associate judges serve at the pleasure of the circuit judges.

Lee will step into the post vacated two weeks ago by the retirement of John Kennedy, an associate judge for 20 years.

Chief Judge Randy Rosenbaum called Lee with the news Thursday afternoon.

“I was really shocked and in a little bit of disbelief, but it is truly the opportunity of a lifetime to serve the community in a special way,” Lee said. “I’ve got a lot to learn but I’m excited,” Lee said.

Lee is expected to pick up the assignment Kennedy had — administration of the misdemeanor docket and handling the cases of children suspected of being abused and neglected.

The latter will be new to him, he admitted.

One of about three dozen attorneys at the Champaign firm of Meyer Capel, Lee has concentrated his practice there for the last almost seven years on defending those accused of driving under the influence and other crimes.

“I’m going to deeply miss representing clients in criminal and traffic because these are individuals who have made a mistake and are at a low point in life. It’s gratifying to help them,” he said. “I’m really going to miss Meyer Capel. There is no better place to work. It’s just like a family.”

Fellow Champaign County Judge Anna Benjamin was also a member of that firm before being chosen as an associate in late 2017.

An attorney since December 2003, Lee started his career in the McLean County State’s Attorney’s Office and was a prosecutor for more than 10 years before joining Meyer Capel in March 2014.

He was one of 23 applicants, many of whom have applied for judgeships before. This was Lee’s first time to apply.

“This was a very difficult decision for the circuit judges since we had a number of excellent candidates,” Rosenbaum said. “We interviewed all 23 applicants and considered bar poll results. We called dozens of references and got input from many people, even the general public. Matt will do an excellent job and we look forward to working with him.”

Born in Taiwan, Lee’s family moved to the U.S. when he was 1.

A son of a minister and brother to one, Lee grew up in Minnesota, the Canadian province of Saskatchewan and Colorado before the family moved to Naperville in 1990. After high school there, he attended the University of Illinois, where he got his bachelor’s degree in political science and speech communications in 2000 and his law degree in 2003.

While in school, he got involved in the Covenant Fellowship Church and met his wife of nine years, Jennifer, through a Bible study class. They now have three sons.

He also got involved in the church’s music ministry and has been part of that for 22 of the 25 years he’s been a member. Lee said most of the friends he jammed with as an 11-year-old are now professional musicians.

He’s happy to settle for making a difference.

“I consider it a very grave responsibility to be one of the means by which our community can believe our system of justice works,” he said. “I take it very seriously. I know it’s something I need to grow into and I’m willing to learn from my mistakes and lean upon the expertise of my more esteemed colleagues.”

Associate judges in Illinois are paid just under $197,000 annually, about $10,000 less per year than circuit judges.