Cook County, Illinois Judicial Elections: Picking Qualified Candidates?

When voters in heavily populated Cook County, Ill. (see map) go to the polls in a Democratic primary on March 20, will they pick the most qualified candidates for about 40 judicial seats?

Two reports from different Illinois media outlets, one focusing on voting for lower court nominees and one on voting to fill a state Supreme Court seat representing Cook County, raise numerous questions about the judicial election process, which is heavily determined by the Democratic primary.

Medill Reports article not only states that almost a third fewer voters posted a vote for a down-ballot trial judgeship in the 2008 Democratic primary than voted in the primary overall, it also quotes a watchdog group as contending voters simply don’t get enough information about judicial candidates.

“We are electing some of the most powerful people in our community with a system that doesn’t provide a great deal of information on which to base that decision,” said Malcolm Rich, executive director of the Chicago Appleseed Fund For Justice, a JAS partner group. It operates, a website that informs Cook County voters about judicial candidates.

“The reason all of this is confusing to people in Chicago is that there are so many judicial vacancies that nobody, I repeat nobody, can keep track of all of the candidates and reasonably evaluate them,” said retired federal Judge Wayne Andersen, who also served as a circuit judge in Chicago.

Evan McKenzie, a political scientist at University of Illinois at Chicago, suggested that unqualified candidates can win election to sit on the bench through their political connections. “If you get the Democratic nomination, which you get by going through a committee of party leaders, you are as good as in,” he said.

“We have a system that is capable of being manipulated by our politicians to pick our judges,” McKenzie said. “If you are unqualified, I don’t think you should be on the ballot.”

A WBEZ report on the upcoming state Supreme Court primary, meanwhile, asks in its headline, “Does anybody even know it’s on the ballot?” After mentioning man-on-the-street interviews that support the headline’s point, the article recaps the contest.

It  features three principal candidates, all of whom are female. One them, incumbent Justice Mary Jane Theis, has been endorsed by the Democratic Party and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Her campaign is leading the pack in fundraising, reporting $609,339 on hand at the end of December and having raised at least $21,800 since then; the campaign of appellate Justice Joy Cunningham had $139,330 at the end of 2011, and reported more than $43,500 so far this year; and the campaign of appellate Justice Aurelia Pucinski had less than $300.

“The Democratic Party in all likelihood, in all reality, has a very tight hold on who gets elected to the bench in Cook County,” said Justice Cunningham. Only token opposition is expected from a GOP candidate for the state Supreme Court seat. To learn more about party politics and the upcoming primary contest, see Gavel Grab.


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