The Small-Town Lawyer Who Took on the Governor of Illinois

June 18, 2020 Updated: June 18, 2020

CHICAGO—Thomas DeVore was the first lawyer to get Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker in court to defend his stay-at-home order.

And when a judge ruled in his favor, hundreds of small-business owners flocked to DeVore for help reopening despite Pritzker’s orders. 

DeVore lives in Sorento, Illinois, a town of about 600 people. He picked up the practice of law late in life, at the age of 42, less than 10 years ago. But he has been front and center in the legal battles against Pritzker. 

When he saw stay-at-home orders depriving small-business owners of their livelihood, he wanted to help. 

He says he’s always been a defender; he used to protect his younger brothers and stepmother from his abusive alcoholic father.

Some people are afraid to help others because they might get hurt themselves, he said. But he’s not too worried about that. “I grew up in a 12 by 60 [foot] trailer, and I’ll go back with a smile on my face before I watch good people get hurt,” he told The Epoch Times.

DeVore doesn’t question Pritzker’s intentions in trying to stem the COVID-19 outbreak. But, “for my own personal reasons, I’m not a fan of the government interfering with people’s liberties,” he said. 

“I went from spending most of my childhood in a trailer park, to having a successful law practice. And I attribute that to the liberties that this country gave me,” he said. “I saw that being taken away from people.”

A Different Course

His family thought he was crazy when he decided to attend college—they never thought of college, only of earning a living. When DeVore was 16, a motorcycle accident debilitated him for about a year, and he did a lot of thinking during that time.

He steered his life on a different course after that. 

He supported himself through college by working nights at bars and a casino. He wasn’t the college type—he had a long mullet (it was the ’80s) and wore a black trench coat, and he said his appearance and manner of speaking were not “college-like.” Yet he graduated first in his class.

After graduating, he worked as an accountant, got married, and had triplets. His triplets were six when he decided to go back to school to study law. It was hard to balance family life and his studies, but he did it.

Epoch Times Photo
Thomas DeVore (Courtesy of Thomas DeVore)

He has done well with his practice in Greenville, Illinois. But the number of businesses seeking his help has grown exponentially since he took Pritzker on. 

The Battle Begins

On April 1, when Pritzker issued an executive order extending the state of emergency, and stay-at-home orders along with it—the Second Gubernatorial Disaster Proclamation—DeVore decided to take action.

“We got to look to the laws,” DeVore said. “[Pritzker] can’t close bars and restaurants with the authority under the Emergency Management Agency Act.” 

DeVore also felt rural Illinois deserved a different approach from that of Chicago and its surrounding suburbs, where nearly 90 percent of reported COVID-19 cases in Illinois have been.

He started asking around, looking for business clients who wanted to challenge the governor’s orders in court. He didn’t expect his first client to be a politician. 

First Victory

When Illinois state Rep. Darren Bailey called him, DeVore was working on his farm, wearing rubber boots, a pair of shorts, a cut-off T-shirt, and a bandanna around his head.

“If you want to talk to me, that’s me. I’m not some Chicago lawyer,” DeVore said. He’s been known to wear flip flops and shorts to his law office—only on days he’s not seeing clients, of course.

DeVore was wary before meeting with Bailey. “I wasn’t looking to help some politician become famous, right? I was looking for somebody that believes in what I believe in.”

When he met with Bailey, however, DeVore got “the impression that he was trying to do this for the right reasons.” Bailey is a farmer, too. He spent most of his life growing corn and soybeans in rural Illinois.

Bailey and DeVore filed the first lawsuit challenging Pritzker’s April 1 executive order, which had extended stay-at-home restrictions. They argued that his emergency powers couldn’t exceed a 30-day period under the Illinois Emergency Management Agency Act, so the order was an overreach of power. 

Three days later, Clay County Circuit Court Judge Michael McHaney ruled in Bailey’s favor.

He granted Bailey’s request for a temporary restraining order. Priztker is appealing McHaney’s decision in federal court.

The preliminary victory caught the attention of national media. When DeVore’s friends saw him on TV answering questions in a lawyerly manner, they laughed.

“They know that’s a role I can play, but they know the guy that walks around with a bandanna on his head and talks like a normal person, so it’s kind of funny,” he said. 

“There is a perception I don’t like, that if you are from a small town or a rural area, you’re less intelligent.

“A lot of smart people that live out where I live, they just want to be left alone. If you push hard enough, those people will come out from wherever they are and will stand up.”

After McHaney agreed with DeVore, his business clientele grew from 1 to 200 within a month.

Reopening Small Businesses

DeVore said he’s helped people gather the courage to take action in this confusing and uncertain time. 

“Some are still scared of the government,” DeVore said. “They’re scared that if they reopen, somebody’s just going to show up and take everything away from them.”

His business clients are of two types, he said. One is those who feel strongly about liberty and don’t like to be pushed around. The other is those who have nothing to lose; they have to reopen to save their dying businesses. 

Kevin Promenschenkel is both. He owns a biker bar near the Mississippi River and was about to enter what is usually his busiest period when COVID-19 struck.

Epoch Times Photo
Demonstrators gather outside of the Thompson Center to protest restrictions instituted by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker to curtail the spread of COVID-19, in Chicago, on May 1, 2020. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

He allowed customers to eat outdoors on tables 10 feet apart, even when it wasn’t allowed by the governor. On May 7, he received a cease-and-desist order from the Illinois Liquor Commission, threatening to revoke his liquor license. 

“If I could not open for the Memorial Day weekend, my business is dead,” Promenschenkel told The Epoch Times.

So Promenschenkel and DeVore took it to court. DeVore’s legal argument—in Promenschenkel’s case as well as many other cases—is that the health departments have the power to close a business due to health risks. The governor does not. 

Even when the health departments decide to close a business, DeVore said, they can only do so through due process: either by the consent of the business owner or by a court order. 

DeVore also sent a letter to the Illinois Liquor Commission stating they have no legal authority to revoke Promenschenkel’s license. “If you’re going to do it, you personally, Mr. Director, could be on the hook for a federal civil rights claim,” DeVore wrote.

Promenschenkel opened his business for the Memorial Day weekend. His business is alive but not well. He’s not sure if he can weather the winter season after the hit to his busier months. No decision has yet been made on his case.

Out of his 200 clients, DeVore has only filed lawsuits on behalf of about six. For most of them, he takes a different approach that’s quicker.

He sends a letter to the local health department, stating that his client is about to reopen and only a court order can force the client to close. 

None of his clients have been forcibly shut down or had their licenses suspended.

For the six lawsuits, he decided in those cases to take it to court because those clients either faced an immediate risk of having their licenses revoked, or they simply had good stories to tell. 

“Decisions from court may be forgotten, but stories don’t get forgotten so quickly,” DeVore said. Those receive attention in the court of public opinion, and “the court of public opinion is just as important to me as a courtroom.”

On May 23, McHaney ruled on the case of DeVore’s small-business client, James Mainer, owner of HCL Deluxe Tan shop. 

McHaney ordered Pritzker to restrain from enforcing his executive order against Mainer and his business. 

McHaney said in court: “Since the inception of this insanity, the following regulations, rules or consequences have occurred. … Selling pot is essential but selling goods and services at a family-owned business is not. … Murderers are released from custody while small-business owners are threatened with arrest if they have the audacity to attempt to feed their families.

“Make no mistake, these executive orders are not laws. They are royal decrees. … The last time a monarch tried to rule Americans, a shot was fired that was heard around the world. 

“That day led to the birth of a nation consensually governed based upon a document which ensures that on this day in this, any American courtroom, tyrannical despotism will always lose and liberty, freedom, and the constitution will always win.”