Twenty-eight years. That’s how long it’s been since the last time a Cook County judge was voted out of office. This election year, as on every even year when we hit the polls to pick a president or governor, Cook County voters are also asked to vote on 39 candidates trying to join the judiciary for the first time and vote “yes” or “no” to keep another 61 judges already on the bench.
Judicial elections have traditionally garnered little public interest or scrutiny—even though, of all the elected officials on any ballot, it’s the judges we’re all most likely to come in contact with. You could be the victim of a crime or be accused of one. You could need a divorce. You could wind up in eviction court. You could need to settle an inheritance dispute. Most of these legal issues will require judges. After a nearly three-decade hiatus, Cook County voters seem poised to remind at least a couple of them—Matthew Coghlan and Maura Slattery Boyle, both 18-year veterans of the bench—that their jobs aren’t guaranteed for life.
First, a little background: the Circuit Court of Cook County is the largest unified court system in the country. Every year, in 16 courthouses around the county, 400 judges preside over hundreds of thousands of criminal and civil cases—from murder trials to medical malpractice lawsuits to traffic ticket contestations.
Two-thirds of these judges are elected, either to “countywide” seats (for which voters from all of Cook County get to cast a vote) or to “subcircuit” seats (for which only voters in a particular area of the county get to vote—think of these as wards or congressional districts, but for judges only). The other third of the judges are appointed by the elected judges, and it’s a competitive process. Hundreds of attorneys who’ve been practicing law for at least six years apply for a handful of appointment slots that become available every other year. A nominating committee of the circuit court’s presiding judges (the head judges of every division) pick two candidates for each slot after evaluating their credentials and reviews by various bar associations. The finalists are chosen through a vote by the elected judiciary. These appointed judges—known as associate judges—serve four-year terms and then have to survive a retention vote cast by their colleagues to stay on the bench.
For the two-thirds of the circuit court judges who are elected by the public, the first hurdle is getting on the ballot—which usually means getting involved in partisan politics.
Judges running for a countywide or subcircuit seat have to gather petition signatures and campaign like any other candidate for elected office. It’s hard to run a winning campaign without the support of a political party, and around here, without the support of the Democratic Party in particular. It’s why most judges in Cook County are Democrats and why the only seriously contested part of a judicial election is the Democratic primary. This year, just five of the 39 open judicial seats in the county offer a choice between a Democratic and Republican candidate on the November ballot. In the other 34 races, Democratic candidates are running unopposed.
Elected judges serve six-year terms. At the end of a term, the public is asked to vote on whether or not to retain them. This year, there are 59 circuit court judges up for a retention vote. (There’s also one state appellate court judge and one state supreme court justice seeking retention.)
Judges up for retention are listed on the ballot by seniority; party affiliations are not indicated. To stay on the bench each judge must garner at least 60 percent “yes” votes. If a judge isn’t retained, he or she will serve out the rest of the current term, which ends in early December. Then, the Illinois Supreme Court will appoint someone to fill the vacancy until the next primary and general election deliver a permanent replacement. Judges appointed to fill vacancies (either created by a lost election or by an elected judge’s retirement or death) will eventually have to fight for their seats through a primary and general election before they can truly enjoy the benefits of incumbency and the relatively less stressful prospect of retention votes.
Ever since the current circuit court and judicial election system was implemented in Illinois in 1964, most judges have effectively had lifetime appointments. They have negligible name recognition, and have the benefit of various organizations rooting for their retention no matter what—mainly the Cook County Democratic Party and the Committee for Retention of Judges in Cook County (made up of local attorneys and retired Cook County judges), both of which consistently remind the public to just vote “yes” on all the retention candidates. Several bar associations and media organizations compile evaluations of all judges up for retention, but few voters seem to know about these resources. The bar groups recommend most judges for retention anyway.
But this year is unusual. Two circuit court judges have been the targets of particularly intense scrutiny in the run-up to this election and stand a chance of losing their seats. Matthew Coghlan and Maura Slattery Boyle were among just seven judges in the county who received any negative reviews from one or more of the 11 local bar associations that evaluate judges for retention. (For a comprehensive digest of bar associations’ recommendations for each judge on the November ballot, see voteforjudges.org.)
Coghlan, who serves in the criminal division, is currently being sued by two exonerated men, Armando Serrano and José Montañez, who claim that as a prosecutor he worked with disgraced Chicago Police detective Reynaldo Guevara to frame them for murder. (Last summer, a federal jury awarded another exonerated man more than $17 million after finding that Guevara had framed him for a different murder.) Coghlan has also amassed complaints from attorneys, who told the Chicago Council of Lawyers (CCL) that he “can be condescending and otherwise disrespectful toward non-white lawyers and defendants in his courtroom.” After an extensive review, Injustice Watch found that Coghlan recently ran afoul of the Illinois Appellate Court with a ruling on a postconviction petition, and that he’s among the harshest sentencers in the county, routinely imposing one-year prison terms for simple marijuana possession convictions.
The Chicago Bar Association and the Illinois State Bar Association—two prominent lawyers’ groups that evaluate Cook County judges—have given Coghlan their vote of confidence for retention. But CCL—which is generally seen as the more “progressive” organization—and six additional bar associations rated Coghlan as “not qualified.” What’s most likely to seal his fate, however, is an unprecedented move on the part of the Cook County Democratic Party, which dropped its endorsement of Coghlan in September. Voters have been getting robocalls from party chair and Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle urging them to boot him off the bench.
“After an independent investigation, the Cook County Democratic Party’s retention committee recommended unanimously that he not be retained,” Preckwinkle says in the recorded message. “Please vote to retain all the other qualified judges but vote “no” on Judge Coghlan.”
In the recording, Preckwinkle delivered the “all the other qualified judges” part with particular emphasis. Are voters to interpret the term “qualified” as a description of all other judges? Or is she implying we should only vote “yes” on judges who are qualified? The ambiguity may be intentional. After all, the party hasn’t come out against any other judges who’ve been under fire from bar groups or the media—ever, as far as anyone can remember.
For example, in its review Injustice Watch found circuit court judge Maura Slattery Boyle to be the county’s harshest sentencer—imposing longer prison terms for defendants than the other criminal division judges who handle serious felony cases like the ones that come through her courtroom. She was also found to favor prison terms over probation for less serious crimes. Slattery Boyle has also had more decisions overturned by the appellate court than any other of the six criminal division judges seeking retention this year—almost as many as the other five judges combined. Here too, cases involving Detective Guevara loom large. When the two men who are now suing Coghlan were appealing their conviction in 2013, Slattery Boyle discounted their evidence of Guevara’s misconduct and was later chastised by the appellate court, which took the case out of her hands. The higher court noted that Slattery Boyle “gave the impression that [she] was flatly unwilling to consider the evidence offered by [Serrano].”
While CCL and two other groups didn’t recommend her for retention this year, the Cook County Democrats are sticking by her.
Scrutiny of Coghlan and Slattery Boyle notwithstanding, if history is any indication, they still stand a good chance of keeping their jobs. Negative rankings by bar groups, rare as they are, have mattered little to voters in the past. There’s a stronger force at play in judges’ favor—the ethnic politicking that continues to animate local elections. In a 2004 Reader feature on a circuit court judge who kept getting reelected despite documented abuses of power and disavowals by bar associations, Steve Bogira noted:
“In judicial elections Cook County voters have long marked their ballots as if they were choosing the Saint Patrick’s Day parade committee. Their clear preference for O’Judges and McJudges has occasionally led judicial candidates to adopt Irish aliases for the ballot. . . . In retention elections the NR—not recommended—after a candidate’s name on the bar group flyers hurts, but not as much as the Mc at the front of the name on the ballot helps.”
The tendency to support incumbency has also been heavily bolstered by the Committee for Retention of Judges in Cook County, a group created in the wake of the judicial corruption scandal exposed by Operation Greylord in the 1980s, when 17 Cook County judges were indicted (and 15 convicted) for taking bribes, racketeering, and other federal crimes. On its face the group is nonpartisan, but much of its funds are funneled to the Cook County Democratic Party to campaign in support of judges. Since 1984, the committee has urged voters to vote “yes” to retain all judges, regardless of their evaluations. Though some of their lawn signs continue to spread this message around the county (and three sitting judges—Regina Scannicchio, Celia Gamrath, and Diann Marsalek—were photographed in “Retain All Judges” t-shirts at this year’s Columbus Day Parade and featured on the group’s Facebook page), lately the committee has made efforts to appear a little less brazen.
“We don’t make specific recommendations,” explains committee cochair (and former judge) Marvin Leavitt, a family law and divorce attorney. “We say: vote for qualified judges.”
But they don’t say not to vote for unqualified judges. Leavitt says that’s because ultimately, what “qualified” means isn’t for the committee to decide. “The position we take is, you take your position and we endorse qualified judges,” he says. This position extends even to Coghlan. “If you found him qualified, you’ll vote for him, if you found him not qualified, you don’t vote for him.”
Which raises the question—are the bar association rankings (which ultimately amount to lawyers’ rather than litigants’ or defendants’ perspectives on judges), party endorsements, and blanket approval of anyone found qualified for apparently any reason really the best we can do to help us figure out how to vote on the seats that, arguably, have the greatest impact on our daily lives? Shouldn’t there be a more systematic and objective way to judge who’s a good judge?
Unsurprisingly, there is. Just not in Illinois. More than a dozen states have judicial performance commissions that periodically evaluate judges’ performance throughout their time in office. These commissions offer feedback for judges to improve before they, say, enter into a pattern of misinterpreting the law or veer far from sentencing norms; they also offer praise for judges doing a good job.
“The fact that we only evaluate judges every six years means a judge can move into a new assignment that he or she cannot grasp and suddenly for the next year or more litigants are suffering,” explains Malcolm Rich, the director of the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, a nonprofit research and advocacy group working to promote equity in the courts.
Rich says it shouldn’t be that judges are evaluated less frequently on their job than employees in any other workplace, especially since they have considerable power to decide the trajectory of people’s lives. “Retention elections can focus on judges who are doing the worst job, but there are many other judges that could be doing a bad job, and we should be paying attention to them as well.” Rich added that there are plenty of good judges in Cook County who deserve praise for their performance.
A judicial evaluation system not tied to the election cycle would allow us to take better stock of the judiciary on all fronts, and Appleseed is currently working on a proposal to establish one in Illinois. In the meantime, we’ve got to make do with the system we have. This system relies heavily on voter self-education about the candidates and actually casting that ballot—no matter how tedious it might feel.
Some voters already find that second part a challenge. According to Chicago Board of Elections spokesman Jim Allen, many don’t even bother filling out the judicial part of the ballot.
“It’s a lot of material for voters to wade through,” Allen says. He encourages people who are voting in person to bring a cheat sheet to help them make their decisions, particularly on the dozens and dozens of judicial candidates. “I can’t memorize the ballot, and I’m pretty close to the process,” he says. “And no one I know who works at this agency has the ballot memorized. We all bring notes to the polling place, and we encourage voters to do that.”
Allen adds that we shouldn’t think of the judicial part of the ballot as less interesting. It behooves voters to research the candidates. “You’re more likely to come in contact with judges than any of the other officials on that ballot,” he says. And the judges’ impact on the entire county compounds quickly. “The election itself, if there’s a close election contest, where does it go? In front of a judge,” Allen says.
Rich is optimistic that this attitude is catching on.
“I am seeing more interest than ever in these judicial elections, particularly among younger people,” he says. “I think people are now understanding how important judges are and how dangerous it will be if we don’t have an independent and quality judiciary.” He thinks the drama around Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court has helped people see judges in general in a whole new light. “It’s dawning on people that the Circuit Court of Cook County makes incredibly important decisions.”