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Bottom of the Ballot Tue Oct 30 2012

The Bottom of the Ballot: Judging the Judges

bottomoftheballot_judges350.jpgWith only a few weeks left until the elections, you've probably heard enough about those two guys vying for the top spot on the ballot. There has been an immense amount of attention to this year's presidential election -- but what about the other positions that are up for grabs? Specifically, who the heck are all of these judges that you, as a voter, are expected to vote for (or against)?

Judicial elections are a bit awkward, democratically speaking. Most people try their best to stay as far away from judges or courtrooms as possible. And yet it is up to to Illinois voters to decide who is fit to judge; who should join the big leagues, and who should stay on the bench. Here are some tips for judging the judges.

First up: who's on the ballot?

Before you can decide who you will vote for, you should probably see who is on the ballot to begin with. To do that, you can either try to decipher the handy state- issued PDFs showing the Cook County subcircuits, or take the easy route and enter your address on the Chicago Board of Election's website to see your sample ballot. We recommend the second option.

Illinois Supreme Court

No matter where you live in Chicago, the most important judicial post on the ballot is for the First District seat on the Illinois Supreme Court. In this race, Democrat Mary Jane Theis (website, funds raised) is running against Republican James G. Riley (website, funds raised).

Theis is actually already serving on the Supreme Court, having been appointed to the court after Chief Justice Thomas R. Fitzgerald retired in 2010. She became the Democratic nominee after winning the primary elections in March of this year -- spending around $1.2 million dollars on television ads in the process. Judge Riley has been serving on the Circuit Court since 1996 and also teaches at the John Marshall Law School.

If debates are your thing, the video below -- recorded during the March primaries -- features both Theis and Riley.

Next Up -- Wait a Minute...

The next judicial positions on the ballot are for the Appellate Court and the Subcircuits of the Cook County Circuit Court. However, while there are 35 spots on this section of the ballot, none of them are contested. Unless you feel like writing in your favorite imaginary candidate (Judge Bart Simpson, anyone?)

Love 'Em or Leave 'Em -- Retaining Judges

Finally, we have retention elections, where voters decide whether currently sitting justices deserve to serve another term or not. In order to remain on the bench for another term, they must receive at least 60% voter approval. All Cook County Circuit Court judges who are facing retention will be on the ballot in Chicago. You can see the complete list on your Sample Ballot or on the candidate list [PDF] provided by Chicago's Board of Election Commissioners.

Judging the Judges

Now that you've met the candidates, how should you decide who to vote for? Luckily, there are plenty of people ready to give you their opinions.

Of course, there's always the editorial boards of media outlets and other organizations that endorse candidates. Theis was endorsed by the Chicago Tribune during the primary election and has been given the nod by quite a few other organizations and politicians, while Riley hasn't received any major endorsements.

Additionally, local bar associations (groups of lawyers, not drunks) rank candidates on a scale of either "Not Recommended" to "Highly Recommended" or "Not Qualified" to "Highly Qualified." When it comes to the Supreme Court race, both judges are generally said to be qualified, as are most candidates up for retention.

  • Illinois State Bar Association [PDF]: Theis is Highly Qualified and Riley is Qualified; Should not be retained: Brim, Chevere, Donnelly, Egan, and Hill-Veal

  • Alliance of Bar Associations for Judicial Screening [PDF]: both Theis and Riley received at least Recommended or Qualified marks, with Theis receiving several Highly Recommended/Qualifieds; Should not be retained: Chevere, Egan, and Hill-Veal

  • Chicago Bar Association: Theis is Highly Qualified and Riley is Qualified; Should not be retained: Brim, Brooks, Chevere, Eadie-Daniels, Egan, Hill-Veal, and Murphy

  • Chicago Council of Lawyers [PDF]: Theis is Highly Qualified and Riley is Not Qualified; Should not be retained: Flanagan, Brim, Donnelly, Egan, Murphy Gorman, Hill-Veal, and Chevere

You may have noticed some names came up as "Not Recommended" on a few of this lists -- and if you're wondering why, a report by the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice's Judicial Performance Commission [PDF] provides some insights. Some highlights:

  • Judge Cynthia Brim has been suspended from the court since she was arrested on March 12, 2012 for shoving a Cook County Sheriff's deputy. Additionally, more than half of respondents interviewed by the Judicial Review Committee indicated they had "a lack of confidence in her legal abilities."

  • Judge Gloria Chevere was caught sunbathing in her backyard after closing her court early by a Fox Chicago News/Better Government Association. Additionally, Judicial Review says it appears she has "significant difficulties in the areas of diligence and temperament that seriously impede her effectiveness as a jurist."

  • Judge James Egan is going to retire in 2012, so these groups are indicating that he probably shouldn't be appointed for another term.

  • Judge Pamela Hill-Veal's review indicates that lawyers think her bad temper "is undermining her ability to function as reputable jurist."

And if the movie Ghostbusters 2 taught us anything, it's that good judicial temperament is incredibly important.

Odds of Change

I hope you had a little bit of a laugh from that Ghostbusters clip, because there's one last thing you should know about this year's judicial elections: they probably won't make that much of a difference.

As researcher Alan Klumpp explained to WBEZ, "the last time that any Republican defeated a Democrat for a county-wide judicial vacancy at any level was 1966, and the last time it happened for Supreme Court was 1924."

Additionally, when it comes to the retention elections, the conventional wisdom is that all of these judges will be approved for another term. Another WBEZ piece, written in 2010, quoted Justice Malcolm Rich from the Appleseed Fund for Justice as saying, "Since the 1960s, there have been 14 judges that have not been retained in Cook County. So in general, judges are always -- or nearly always -- retained."

Some Light Reading

Want to learn more about the judicial candidates? Here are some resources to check out:

A huge hat tip to Sam Hudzik at WBEZ for his pieces on the judicial elections.

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Shira / November 4, 2012 10:36 AM

" there's one last thing you should know about this year's judicial elections: they probably won't make that much of a difference."

I was with you on this article, which helps educate people on a part of the ballot we could all stand to know more about, until this comment,which discourages people from participating.

Isn't giving people the facts the 1st step in increasing participation? If increasing participation ISN'T the point of the article, how about letting people make up their own minds, instead of throwing a bucket of cold water over the proceedings?

Judges affect many people's lives in a very real, direct way, so this is irresponsible. Have you READ some of the reasons bar associations give for "Do Not Retain" recommendations? Some of these judges REALLY need to go.

The questions not 'in the past, have most judges been retained' but, do we have a responsibility to help get rid of these bad judges, who have the power to critically affect many lives in the course of their daily work?

A better point might be "few people vote for judges, so you have a greater chance of having an impact - do your research, and tell a friend." Isn't that just as true?

Your first point as to why your vote doesn't matter is that there's little chance of Republican judges being elected. Partisanship is a red herring when it comes to local positions? This is Chicago we're talking about. Even if I'm not calling that correctly -- there are differences between candidates, regardless of the party binary, and to not vote is to send the message that no one is watching or interested enough to participate - always a dangerous message to send any elected official.

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