Next Tuesday’s Democratic primary ballot will confront voters with the usual bewildering array of judicial candidates. Among some 86 candidates for a total of 17 judgeships, voters will find the traditional assortment of also-rans, has-beens, party hacks, aspiring youngsters, ethnic opportunists, and, here and there, a few really good judges–like Dom Rizzi (line 157 on the ballot) and Charles Freeman (line 159), who unfortunately are vying for one of two state supreme court vacancies; Blanche Manning (line 164), who is running for the other supreme court vacancy; and Joseph Gordon (line 166), who is running for the appellate court.

Many voters will be tempted to simply fold up their ballots once they make it to page 12, where the judicial lineup begins. But what if they knew that, buried down on the list at line 185, is the best judge in the state?

It can’t be proved, of course; there is no objective way to rank judges definitively. Still, Circuit Court Judge Warren Wolfson, who is running for the appellate court, is among those who can lay legitimate claim to the title.

Two years ago, when a vacancy opened up on the Illinois Supreme Court, the reform-minded Chicago Council of Lawyers convened an independent, blue-ribbon, multiracial panel to evaluate candidates for the vacancy. The panel awarded Judge Wolfson the highest of its four rankings: “Exceptionally well qualified and recommended.”

The panel explained that Wolfson “has consistently maintained the highest ethical standards of conduct, has an excellent judicial temperament, and is widely regarded as one of the best judges in Illinois. Lawyers practicing before him, including those who have lost cases, have praised his fairness and his ability to master complex legal and factual issues. Before becoming a judge, he had an excellent reputation in private practice . . .”

It is hard to find anyone who disagrees. The council’s current evaluation of candidates in the primary echoes those accolades. So does the Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct Organization. The Chicago Bar Association finds him “highly qualified.” In endorsing Wolfson, the Sun-Times notes such “topmost bar ratings” (Tribune endorsements, as of this writing, aren’t out yet). The progressive Chicago Conference of Black Lawyers praises Wolfson’s “sensitivity to the concerns of the African American community and commitment to fairness in the judiciary.”

Perhaps the most extraordinary endorsement comes from a group of 79 law professors from all six Chicago law schools who have declared “enthusiastic support” for Wolfson’s candidacy. Associate Dean Thomas Geraghty of Northwestern University School of Law, organizer of this apparently unprecedented effort by law professors, explains that he has known Wolfson since the mid-1970s “when I saw him try cases at 26th and California and was lucky enough to work with him and his office on criminal cases.”

What impressed Geraghty, apart from Wolfson’s legal skill, was that he is “scrupulously honest. In a city where criminal practice is a tough field, and criminal defense attorneys often tend toward the lowest common denominator, Warren Wolfson was a real inspiration for me. He showed the best of what the criminal defense bar can be.”

Geraghty was “surprised and moved by the willingness of so many professors to organize their law schools in a show of support. I never expected this many.”

The response is due in part to Wolfson’s record as one of the premier trial advocacy teachers in the country. He has long been on the faculty of the National Institute for Trial Advocacy and of the New Judge Seminar of the Illinois Judicial Conference, and he teaches trial advocacy at both the University of Chicago Law School and the Illinois Institute of Technology/Chicago Kent College of Law.

Dean Lewis Collens of Chicago Kent, where Wolfson heads the trial advocacy program, typifies the response. Collens has “tremendous respect for Judge Wolfson’s legal ability. He is extraordinarily dedicated to the law and will make an outstanding appellate judge.”

Yet most of the people who will vote next week have never heard of Wolfson. Why? In part, his invisibility is inherent in the present judicial election system, in which voters are somehow expected to choose between dozens of candidates running citywide or countywide for the bench. (Last year the General Assembly approved a new and controversial system of electing judges from much smaller districts, to take effect in 1991; that new law is now facing a court challenge.)

In Wolfson’s case, there is an additional reason: he refuses to play the political game. In announcing his candidacy in December, Wolfson declined to seek or accept organized political support. “I do not mean to offend people who are part of our political structure,” he said. “But headlines during the past few years tell us loud and clear that judges must not give even an appearance of obligation to any political individual or group.”

Skeptics might contend that this noble posture cost Wolfson little if anything, since his lack of ties to political parties could make it unlikely that he would get their endorsement in any event. Maybe so, but Wolfson’s principled position goes further–he also refuses to accept or solicit campaign funds. This has retarded his name recognition, and thus his chances of being elected.

Wolfson’s vow of poverty stems from the fact that most money for judicial campaigns comes from lawyers. He explains, “There is nothing illegal or immoral about that, but it does not look right and it makes me uncomfortable. Nonlawyers cannot understand how judges can maintain their independence when accepting funds from lawyers who could appear before those judges. I want to eliminate that cloud of suspicion.”

Left to his own resources, Wolfson has further imposed a $1,000 cap on his spending for the primary. In an era when lavish campaigns for even the most parochial and picayune of public offices are commonplace, by one week before the election Wolfson had spent exactly $959 (mostly to print 14,000 “hard cards” to pass out to voters).

If Wolfson were sure to be elected, his principles might be cost free. But he is not. While two of his three opponents for the seat formerly held by Justice R. Eugene Pincham are nonentities, the third is a serious contender. Justice David Cerda, a judge since 1965 who was appointed to the appellate court by the supreme court last year, is the slated party candidate for the Pincham vacancy. Rating Cerda qualified, the Council of Lawyers finds him a fair, patient, and diligent judge who writes “carefully reasoned” opinions.

Judge Cerda is also the first and only Latino to sit on the appellate court. It is unfortunate that Cerda and Wolfson cannot both be elected to the appellate court.

But they cannot be, at least not in this primary. And it is hardly a criticism of Judge Cerda to say that he is no Warren Wolfson.

In urging his own candidacy, Wolfson stresses two points. First, as he sees it, the public has a vital need for the judiciary to act as an honest, independent check on the excesses of government. In 18 years as a criminal defense lawyer before becoming a judge in 1975, Wolfson had plenty of exposure to the underside of law enforcement. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, he saw it close up as a defense counsel for student radicals and for the Black Panthers in Chicago.

“The other well-known criminal defense attorneys wouldn’t take them. Attorneys who represented rapists and stickup artists wouldn’t represent kids who threw rocks,” Wolfson recalls. “I was told I’d be finished in Chicago, that my practice couldn’t survive. My office was ransacked on three occasions.”

During those years, a visitor in Wolfson’s home was one William O’Neill. Unknown to Wolfson at the time, O’Neill, who “baby-sat for my kids,” was on the payroll of the FBI to inform on the Panthers. It was O’Neill who gave the government the floor plan of Panther leader Fred Hampton’s apartment, shortly before the night in 1969 when the police burst in and shot Hampton dead in his bed. (The Hampton family later won a $1.85 million settlement in a civil lawsuit against federal, county, and city authorities. O’Neill recently committed suicide.)

In 1976, by then a judge, Wolfson published an article in Northwestern University’s Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology detailing how prosecutors routinely abuse their powers to grant immunity to potential defendants in order to compel testimony. The article began, “A major issue confronting Americans today is the amount of power we want to give the federal government. That is where do a purportedly free people draw the line between their government and their right to be let alone?”

Wolfson’s rulings make clear that he tends to draw the line in favor of allowing the people to peer into their government, not the other way around. He required Mayor Jane Byrne to make public her expense records, despite her objection that they were not technically “public records.” He also ruled that former Chicago Board of Education chief financial officer Joseph Mahran had to vacate that position because he’d failed to file his economic-interest statement until nine months after it was due.

In Mahran’s case, Wolfson wrote: “Public employees and officials serve the public. They are not above the law. Government expects its citizens to obey the law. Citizens, in turn, have the right to expect no less from their government. And they have a right to expect that courts will enforce the law.

“Those public expectations are some of the best things about this country and its legal system.”

The potential to fulfill those public expectations is the second point Wolfson now stresses. Despite the abuses in the judicial system, Wolfson believes that good judges can make it work. Asked for the most important lesson he had learned in 14 years as a circuit court judge, Wolfson replied, “Any kind of misconduct in the courtroom is judicial misconduct, almost all the time. The rightness of a trial depends on the quality of the judge. Attorneys and litigants have a right to expect the right kind of predictability, that is, rulings based on what’s heard in court and not on the judge’s personal predilections. The system can work if judges do their job. There’s nothing wrong with the system on paper; it’s only when the wrong people administer it that it performs badly.”

After a pause, Wolfson concluded, “The system can work. I believe that more strongly today than ever before.”

Maybe that’s true of the criminal and civil justice systems. But will it be true of our system for electing judges next Tuesday?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.