Courting support, Illinois style
elections bore pundits, newspaper reporters
and TV anchors, so it falls largely to the ward committeemen
to fill out Cook Countyüs bench. Would an appointive
system be better?
by Abdon M. Pallasch
the 36th Wards storefront office, just down the street from
the Turner Bowl on Chicagos Northwest Side, prosecutor Dennis
Michael McGuire waited patiently on a Friday afternoon in November
as candidates for the 5th Congressional District and other elected
posts paraded before seven Democratic committeemen. McGuire wants
to be a judge, and judicial candidates are last to be considered
by the committeemen, last on the ballot and last to capture the
attention of the media.
some irony in that. Rahm Emanuel or Nancy Kaszak youll
recognize those names because theyve been written about
will have just one voice out of 435 if elected to the U.S. Congress.
But McGuire and other lawyers Illinoisans have never heard of could
become judges with the single-handed power to separate citizens
from their homes, their cars, their children, even their lives.
All the same, judicial elections bore pundits, newspaper reporters
and TV anchors, so it falls largely to the ward committeemen to
fill out Cook Countys bench.
watched as an elderly man with uncombed white hair trudged to the
podium with a plastic bag full of papers. Government agents had
stalked him at the Olympics in Atlanta, the man told the committeemen
before asking them to collect the signatures he would need to run
for Congress. The ward bosses glanced wide-eyed at each other, then
managed polite applause.
36th Ward Alderman William Banks invited McGuire, the only judicial
candidate to seek this panels blessing, to come up and say
a few words. Tall and chiseled with a pleasant judicial demeanor,
McGuire, a former forward on DePaul Universitys basketball
team, told the committeemen he has been a Northwest Side resident
for 40 years, and that he has been found qualified by about half
the bar groups. The other bar groups, it should be noted, disagreed.
has worked long and hard for the Democratic Organization,
Committeewoman Patricia Cullerton of the 38th Ward told the group.
that, the committeemen unanimously endorsed McGuire for the open
seat in the Northwest Sides 11th Subcircuit. If theres
anything I can do for you, let me know, McGuire told them.
There is something he can do all right, Banks responded. You
can remember your friends at slating and dont forget about
us like a lot of guys do when they put on the robe.
Council of Lawyers President David Melton burst into laughter when
told of the exchange. I think that illustrates one of the
reasons why we should try to find some better system for picking
our judges because I dont think its appropriate for
people to let memories about who their friends are influence their
decision once they are on the bench.
to Banks, why would the comment seem inappropriate? Party committeemen
are in the business of winning elections. And they believe the skills
that make a good congressman and state legislator party loyalty,
years of ringing doorbells and talking to voters, constituent service
also make a good judge.
course, theres potential for a political downside in this
elections ago, Banks and this same crowd of committeemen endorsed
another former prosecutor, George J.W. Smith, for a judgeship in
the 11th Subcircuit. Smith is now under federal indictment for withdrawing
$20,000 in increments small enough to evade federal bank disclosure
rules. Federal investigators reportedly believe the $20,000 was
a bribe to secure an earlier appointment to the bench. In fact,
19 Cook County judges have gone to prison in as many years for taking
bribes and other offenses.
amazing, perhaps, is the number of highly rated, competent judges
who have come through this political process. Cook Countys
best and brightest attorneys who want to be judges have learned
that the price is playing this political game.
Banks credit, he holds his slating in public. The Southwest
Side ward bosses just tell each other over the phone who will get
their subcircuit judgeships.
Monday after McGuires endorsement in the 36th, all 50 of Chicagos
ward committeemen and all 30 suburban Cook County Democratic township
committeemen gathered across the street from City Hall at the Hotel
Allegro committeemen still call it the Bismarck to
ratify their picks for the eight countywide judgeships and three
candidates know what the committeemen, seated in rose-colored chairs
or standing at the back of the room by the coffee and sweet rolls,
want to hear. Its not the candidates position on continuing
legal education for judges. Hes the only individual
that talked about 85 percent turnout and the 3 oclock call
[to get voters to the polls], which is very important in the election,
said 11th Ward Committeeman John Daley, the mayors brother,
referring to one politically active lawyer who, it turns out, has
a good resume, having worked for the city of Chicago, the state
of Illinois and the Chicago Transit Authority. Most importantly,
that candidate, Kenneth Cortesi, tells the nodding politicians,
Ive been a member of the 31st Ward organization since
1971. Like you, Ive been a precinct worker. I delivered for
candidates every time we had an election. I never failed to carry
a precinct. I know what it is to work a precinct.
committeemen ate it up.
Edward Burke of the 14th Ward, chairman of the party subcommittee
that drafts the judicial slate every two years, applauded the committeemen
for cheering Cortesis political credentials more loudly than
they cheered his legal ones. I frankly think that coming to
the bench with legal skills is wonderful, Burke told his colleagues.
Knowing what people out there in the neighborhoods have to
go through is something that is equally important. Youve heard
a lot of people come up here and tell about what they did in the
precincts and, nine times out of 10, its a figment of someones
imagination. In this case, he was one of us.
all are. Burke and the other committeemen note their slating is
open to the public, and that they only consider candidates found
qualified by the Chicago Bar Association or other bar groups. Every
one of the eight candidates they slate is rated qualified. And every
one of the eight also is politically connected.
whats wrong with that, they want to know, making no apologies
for being loyal Democrats.
love it when Burke brags about feats his father used to perform
when he was still alderman at the old office on South Halsted. If
the building were still up, I would petition the Vatican for designation
as a shrine my father used to work miracles there,
Burke told the committeemen. A guy would go down to 54 W.
and take the test for the Police Department and hed be too
short. And hed come to see my father at 4713 S. Halsted. My
father would write out a little card and hed send him back
there and believe it or not hed grow an inch.
would have a heart murmur. Hed write out a card and send em
back to 54 W. Hubbard, and suddenly they were cured, Burke
continued. He made fat people thin. He made short people tall.
It was marvelous.
the lawyers this group has determined in past years to be the worthiest
in town for judgeships are Burkes wife, Anne, who appears
to be doing a fine job on the Appellate Court, and Vice Chairman
Sutkers daughter Shelley Lynn Sutker-Dermer, who gets good
reviews on the Circuit Court.
names of this years judicial candidates, as were those in
the past, will be unfamiliar to most Cook County voters. About 40
percent wont even bother to make a choice in these races.
Many of those who do will go by ethnicity, gender, even ballot position.
But the still-loyal troops of whats left of Chicagos
political machine will cast votes in every race. Eighty percent
of the time, the party-slated candidate wins in countywide judicial
led by former state senator and comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch, have
launched numerous failed crusades over the years to change the judicial
selection system. The last time Cook County voters had a choice
to approve an appointive merit selection system, in
1970, they did so. But downstaters defeated it. Judicial elections
just arent as cumbersome outside the Chicago metropolitan
region. There are fewer offices to fill with fewer candidates, giving
voters a better shot at making informed choices.
years ago, reformers made a modest proposal in Springfield that
would have required candidates to have 10 years experience
to run for judge. All the bar groups require that for an endorsement.
It would save voters the spectacle of having judges, who make $127,000
a year, elected just two years out of law school, as happened in
one case in 1996. But legislators voted it down. (House Democratic
Leader Michael Madigan, now the state party leader, then handed
a judgeship to a former staffer who was less than nine years out
of law school.)
judicial selection reform efforts appear to be moving
in reverse in the legislature. Lawmakers approved a measure that
spiked the number of signatures required to run countywide for judge
in Cook County from 500 to about 3,000 making it all-but-impossible
for independents without an army of patronage workers to challenge
party-slated candidates. Democratic members of the Black Legislative
Caucus teamed up with Republicans to create 15 subcircuits in Cook
County, four of which consistently elect African Americans, two
or three of which elect Republicans, and two of which are supposed
to elect Hispanics, but more often elect white ethnics.
whatever the selection system, qualified judicial aspirants do find
their way onto the bench.
Patti, an attorney for the federal Environmental Protection Agency
who lived on the lakefront, managed a few elections ago to run his
countywide campaign for Cook County judge on two levels. He got
high ratings from all the bar groups, won the endorsement of the
progressive Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct
Organization and ran an amusing ad in the Chicago Reader.
It portrayed him in a black robe sitting on the bench with basketball
players and promoted the slogan, Not just another bench warmer.
also made generous donations to Madigan, Burke and the other key
committeemen and courted their support early and often. Madigan
turned out more votes for him than just about all of his home-base
lakefront wards combined.
a seminar for judicial candidates after the election, Patti offered
his best advice for getting to the Cook County bench. Make
a direct and personal connection with your ward committee person,
he said. If you dont have that all-important connection,
call this week. Go in on a Saturday morning. Ask for their help
and support. Include them in your campaign. In a countywide race,
slating is very important. The party will advance your candidacy,
all the precinct captains. I would encourage those of you with a
love of the law and a commitment to the administration of justice:
Do what you have to do, because thats the name of the game
in Illinois, to get yourself elected.
years crop of 18 lawyers seeking election to the Cook County
bench through the eight countywide openings and the 86 who are trying
to get in through the 16 slots open in the subcircuits got started
early. The most industrious circulated petitions for multiple vacant
seats and filed in several. Then they waited to see who their competition
would be. Candidates look for the race in which theyll be
the only woman running against several men, or the only candidate
with an Irish name. Beyond getting slated, the factors proven over
the years to help in judicial races are securing a top ballot spot,
having a female name and/or an Irish name.
why, when prosecutor Sheila McGinnis, with her super-Irish name
and her clout-heavy family connections, was slated by the party
bosses for one vacancy, every other candidate opted out of that
race, leaving her the winner by default in this months primary.
(Yes, this month. The November general election is irrelevant in
these races. No Republican has beaten a Democrat for a countywide
judgeship in Cook County in more than a decade. And only two of
the 15 subcircuits are competitive in November.)
Irish name carries such strong pull on the judicial ballot because
voters know nothing about the candidates but their ethnicity. Thats
why James G. Smith, who lost a subcircuit race in 1992, changed
his name to James Fitzgerald Smith and won in 1994 and is now running
for the Appellate Court with his new name. Plenty of candidates
over the years some with no Irish blood at all have
adopted Irish names to run for judge.
and the Democratic Party use gentle and not-so-gentle nudges to
get hopefuls into and out of races. In the two weeks after filing,
candidates comb through each others petitions and file objections
to the nominating papers of those they want out of a race. Even
if candidates know their petitions are fine, they know they will
have to spend time and money defending themselves against the challenge
and often will allow themselves to be pushed into a race in which
no one has filed challenges against them.
election seasons game of musical chairs lasted right up until
5 p.m. on Christmas Eve, the deadline for candidates to pull out
of all but one race.
years past, musical chairs night was fun to watch as
candidates crowded onto the 14th floor of the James R. Thompson
Center, where they got into heated arguments, engaged in shoving
matches and resorted to tearful pleas as the witching hour approached.
pull out of this race if youll pull out of that one.
you pull out of that one.
some poor souls, thinking they had cut all of the deals to get their
main rivals out of the races they want, fail to file all of the
withdrawals needed and find themselves still in two races at 5:01
p.m., meaning they are automatically disqualified from both. Joan
Smuda and Michael Thomas OMalley saw that happen to them in
this election perhaps because it was Christmas Eve, perhaps
because the higher signature requirement has thinned the ranks of
candidates the 14th floor was a ghost town. The only two
candidates still horse-trading at 4:55 p.m. were Colleen Glass and
Jennifer Doughty Davenport. Both had filed to run in both openings
in the 8th Subcircuit on the citys lakefront. They finally
came to an agreement. Meanwhile, one other candidate sat nearby
reading a book and assuring herself that no one would file objections
to her in the race she had settled on.
the easy part of the judicial election. The tough part is raising
the campaign cash. Candidates for state Supreme Court spent up to
$1 million last time around and the Circuit Court races are catching
up. The vast majority of campaign contributions to judges come from
attorneys who will practice before those judges. The candidates
are supposed to ignore which lawyers give them money so as not to
appear to be favoring one lawyer or another.
running countywide with the partys blessing are expected to
come up with $10,000 to help with the partys advertising budget.
an appointive system be better?
Chicago-based American Judicature Society has preached for years
that appointive merit selection systems produce higher-caliber
judges and put even more women and minorities on the bench than
least 34 states use merit selection for some judicial offices. Typically,
a blue-ribbon panel screens candidates and forwards three names
to the governor to choose one for vacancies on the bench. In some
states, the state Supreme Court makes the appointment.
Illinois already has an ad hoc version of that system. The state
Supreme Court appoints lawyers to temporary vacancies
on the bench. The three Supreme Court judgesfrom
Cook County control all appointments to the Cook County bench. Those
justices often make the appointments in consultation with the same
ward bosses who helped the justices get elected.
the eight connected lawyers slated to run countywide this year,
six were appointed temporary judges by the Supreme Court. A majority
of Cook Countys 400 judges got their starts with appointments.
there a merit selection system that could not be corrupted by Cook
County and Illinois politics? That question appears to be moot,
as legislative leaders have no intention of changing the current
in every election, the voters have the chance to take matters into
their own hands. In the 36th Ward six years ago, the first time
Banks ran Judge Smith, voters opted instead for the unslated Barbara
Riley, a woman with an Irish name who has been doing just fine
and is indictment-free on the bench.
M. Pallasch covers legal affairs for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Issues, March 2002
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