Under most circumstances, independents would be supporting Cook County judiciary candidates Andrea Malka Schleifer and A.C. Cunningham in the March 15 Democratic primary. Schleifer specializes in family law, and Cunningham, a former prosecutor and defense lawyer, is a well-regarded associate judge. Both have long ties to independent activists.

Yet neither has been endorsed or even found “qualified” by the Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct Organization, the area’s best-known collection of liberals and reformers. The reasons have less to do with the candidates and more to do with factional warfare within the IVI-IPO. “We have our reasons for taking the positions we do, though they may not seem so clear to outsiders,” says Jerry Meites, cochairman of IVI-IPO’s judicial evaluation committee. “I guess we must look a little silly from the outside.”

What makes this squabble more important than most is the fact that IVI-IPO’s stamp of approval really matters in judicial races, which are so confusing that voters need all the help they can get. There are at least 200 candidates running for circuit court judge. Some are running countywide, others from one of 15 wardlike “subcircuits.” In the eighth subcircuit, on the north lakefront, 16 candidates, including Cunningham and Schleifer, are running in the Democratic primary for three vacancies. Instead of all 16 candidates running against one another, with the three highest vote getters moving on to November’s general election, they run in three separate races to fill vacancies “A,” “B,” and “C”–the consequence of a 1990 state law.

“I’m not sure why they did it this way, but they did,” says Schleifer. “The net effect is that most candidates file petitions to run in all three vacancies. Then we all maneuver–dropping out of this race, staying in that one–after we see who our opponents are.”

Candidates use all sorts of rationales when deciding which vacancy to run for. Schleifer, for instance, chose to run for vacancy B, in part because she didn’t want to split the women’s vote by running against Ann Houser, a highly praised associate judge. “The only thing I think everyone agrees on is that the subdistricts are madness,” says Meites. “This is a crazy way to elect judges.”

It also leaves voters baffled about who’s running and who they should vote for. “Most voters look at all those names on the ballot and say, “Man, is this confusing,”‘ says Michael Solock, a lawyer who supports Cunningham. “So they either don’t vote or they pull out their list of endorsements–whether it’s the Tribune, Sun-Times, or IVI–and just follow the list. You can’t blame them–nothing else makes any sense.”

To make its endorsements, the IVI-IPO relies on information from its judicial evaluation committee, a 12-person body consisting mostly of lawyers. “We try to be objective,” says Meites. “We call around to other lawyers and judges seeking information on all the candidates. We don’t get into politics. We’re looking at a candidate’s legal experience, their integrity, writing skills, temperament, and motivation for wanting to be judges.” The committee then provides blurbs on all the candidates to the IVI-IPO, and the candidates are voted on at an endorsement session–which any IVI-IPO member can attend.

Some IVI-IPO members–particularly Aviva Miriam Patt and Carolyn Bay–accuse Meites and the judicial committee of doing little more than collecting gossip when researching candidates and slinging mud when publishing the blurbs. “All they should do is put together a background sheet on each candidate–where they went to school, where they’ve practiced,” says Bay, a longtime IVI-IPO member. “They shouldn’t make secret phone calls digging up allegations. They’re muddying the reputations of good people.”

But Meites says the phone calls have to be secret to keep the sources anonymous, and the sources have to be anonymous or there won’t be any sources. “Critics say we use innuendo or hearsay, but this is peer review. It’s the same thing as when a doctor reviews a doctor.”

This is typical of behind-the-scenes IVI-IPO fights, which rage for years, insults and accusations flying. But this fight went public. On January 24 75 or so members gathered at the group’s downtown headquarters for the eighth-subcircuit endorsement session. First up were the candidates for race A: Cunningham, Houser, Herb Sirott, a north-side lawyer, and Tom Chiola, general counsel for the state Department of Professional Regulation. Each candidate gave a brief talk, answered questions, and left the room.

Then the IVI-IPO members–all 75 of them–caucused. From the start it was obvious that support was closely split between Cunningham and Chiola, who contends he’s the first openly gay candidate for judicial office. Someone moved to endorse Chiola. The motion failed. Someone else moved to endorse all the candidates except Chiola. That also failed. Other motions were made–each requiring ballots to be distributed, collected, and tallied–but none passed.

Cunningham’s supporters called for compromise, proposing to rate all the candidates qualified. But Chiola’s backers stood fast. They wanted a flat-out endorsement.

Voices rose and tempers flared. Cunningham was more experienced, his backers insisted, noting that the Chicago Bar Association had found Chiola not qualified on the grounds that he “lacks sufficient legal experience.”

Chiola’s backers countered that the CBA’s judicial review committee was a collection of hacks. They said IVI-IPO should endorse Chiola, if only to encourage diversity on the bench.

Cunningham’s backers resisted that notion. “That’s like saying we should endorse A.C. just because he’s black,” Richard Barnett, a Cunningham backer, said later. “Race or sexual preference shouldn’t matter–not when one candidate is so much better. I say we give all three candidates a qualified rating and let the voters decide for themselves.”

On and on it went for almost four hours. Finally a second motion to endorse Chiola was advanced. This time it passed.

As Chiola sees it, justice prevailed. “It’s ridiculous to say I don’t have breadth of legal experience. I have argued cases before the state appellate and supreme courts. I have practiced in federal district courts. I was chief administrative law judge for the state Department of Regulation, and I have dealt with incredibly complex malpractice cases.”

But Cunningham thinks he was wronged. “If you measure us by experience, I would have won. His people packed the room. They dragged things on for so long that enough people either left or gave up. Is that a wise way to decide who’s the best candidate to sit on the bench? You would like to think that certain groups are beyond politics.”

While this battle blazed, Schleifer and some of her opponents waited in the hallway. Their endorsement session, which followed, was no less passionate. This time the IVI-IPO was almost evenly divided between those who supported Schleifer and those who supported Melvin Cole, Daniel Pascale, or John Brady.

During the question period Meites asked Schleifer to respond to unspecified criticism about her lawyering skills allegedly made to the judicial committee by unnamed judges and lawyers. Schleifer said she couldn’t possibly respond to such vague, undetailed attacks. Most of her backers felt Meites and the judicial evaluation committee had exceeded their mandate. “It was McCarthy tactics,” says Bay. “There was no way Andrea could defend herself.”

A straw poll was taken, and Schleifer won. But she didn’t get enough votes to win an outright endorsement. The wrangling continued, until finally the group voted to rate Brady, Pascale, and Cole as qualified. Schleifer was left hanging–neither endorsed nor found qualified. Her name won’t appear in any way on IVI-IPO’s endorsement list.

“Basically supporters for all the other candidates snubbed Andrea because they viewed her as a very strong opponent,” says Kiki Svare, Schleifer’s campaign coordinator. “It had nothing to do with qualifications or credentials.”

Schleifer agrees. “At one point Jerry [Meites] said that my reputation as a lawyer isn’t good because “I called ten people and didn’t get one call back, so they must not like her.’ How’s that for absurd reasoning? Someone else said, “Well, Jerry, I wouldn’t call you back if you called me about anything.”‘

In the aftermath Bay, Patt, Deborah McCoy, and Cynthia Robinson resigned from the IVI-IPO board, accusing the group of being biased against women. Copies of their resignation letter were distributed to the media.

That drew a countercharge from rival IVI-IPO members, continuing the fight. “It’s disingenuous to call us antiwomen, especially when you consider that most of the people making that charge are the same folks who supported Chiola over Ann Houser,” says Barnett. “If they’re so much for promoting women judges, why did they snub Houser? It’s also ridiculous that they’d quit just because they didn’t get their way. This is the IVI-IPO. We never agree on anything. If everyone quit after they lost a debate, there wouldn’t be anyone left in the organization.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Charles Eshelman.