When Ramon Ocasio decided to run for Cook County judge last year he figured he’d be a shoo-in if he could win over the local committeemen who put the Democratic Party label next to judges’ names on the ballot. And he didn’t see why he couldn’t: He was a lifelong resident of the Sixth Judicial Subcircuit, where he was running, and had 16 years of experience as a lawyer in the county’s criminal courts; he now supervises 17 other attorneys in the public defender’s office. The Chicago Bar Association, which rates candidates as either “qualified” or “not recommended,” had found him qualified, as had the Chicago Council of Lawyers. And he was Hispanic, which only 4 percent of county judges are, even though the county is 22 percent Hispanic.

But the 11 committeemen settled instead on Gloria Chevere and Edward Lechowicz for the two vacancies in the northwest-side subcircuit, so it’s their names that will have the party’s imprimatur on the March 21 primary ballot. Chevere, a 53-year-old Hispanic attorney, has been practicing for 25 years, served in Harold Washington’s administration as deputy commissioner of the Department of Streets and Sanitation, and was once a CTA executive. Lechowicz, a 36-year-old attorney, has been practicing law for only nine years–but two of them were in the law firm of Ed Vrdolyak, a family friend. And he has a franchise last name–his father is Ted Lechowicz, a 30th Ward veteran who was a state senator and a Cook County commissioner. Ocasio thinks politics trumped merit. “I was even told by some committeemen that after reviewing my resume they could tell I was qualified,” he says.

A politician’s son gets slated over an outsider: dog bites man, right? Well, yes, but Ocasio and state senator Miguel del Valle say there’s a bigger issue than mere patronage. The reforms that created judicial subcircuits 15 years ago were supposed to clear the way for a more diverse bench, sweeping aside the old boys’ network that kept judgeships in the hands of the usual suspects. And Edward Lechowicz, they say, is definitely a usual suspect. So was the judge he’s slated to replace, the late James Jorzak, who slipped into the job at the tender age of 31 with an assist from his dad, a county judge at the time.

Before 1991 there were two ways to become a judge in the Cook County Circuit Court, which has jurisdiction over state and local cases involving everything from traffic violations to murders. You could be elected a circuit judge in a countywide election, or you could be appointed an associate judge by the sitting circuit judges. About half the 300 judges got their jobs one way, half the other. The chief problem with this system, according to its critics, was that it placed a tremendous amount of power in the hands of the Democratic Party’s central committee, which got to choose the candidates who would get the party’s nod on the ballot, almost ensuring their election. Generally it chose white men, and for years the ranks of county judges were dominated by attorneys with Irish surnames and strong connections to the party–judicial races were called the “Irish sweepstakes.” The sitting judges usually appointed judges from the same demographic.

Even as the city and its governing class grew more diverse in the 80s and 90s the judges remained blindingly white. By the early 90s only around 13 percent of judges were black, 2 percent Latino. Frustrated, an unlikely coalition of black and Latino Democrats and white Republicans from the suburbs–who rarely got on the bench either–pushed to open up the process so that more of their own could become judges. In 1991 a state bill created a third way of electing judges, setting aside 165 circuit judgeships to be elected by the voters in 15 newly created subcircuits in the county, many of which contained a majority of black, Latino, or Republican voters. The power to slate candidates in these races shifted to local committeemen in each subcircuit.

Did the new system work? “The subcircuits have led to an increased level of diversity on the bench,” says Malcolm Rich, executive director of the Chicago Council of Lawyers, “but it’s limited in its impact.” Chicago Lawyer’s 2005 diversity study shows just how limited: of 397 judges, only 16 were Latino (4 percent) and only 8 of them had been elected from the subcircuits. (The county is 26 percent black, and 20 percent of judges are black; of the remaining judges, 34 percent are women, 4 percent Asian-American.) “There’s a long ways to go,” says Rich.

This is what has del Valle so exercised about the Sixth Subcircuit race. “What’s ironic this time around, you have Hispanic committeemen who were there when the subcircuits were created,” he says. “They were there advocating for Latino political empowerment–and today they turn around and give away the seat to someone less qualified than the Hispanic seeking their support. There’s still a need to increase the diversity of the bench. They had an opportunity, and in my book an obligation, and they let the community down.”

Most of the committeemen don’t see it that way. For them, it’s simple. There were two openings in a subcircuit with two major ethnic groups, Latino and white ethnic. With one of each on the slate, they satisfied the diversity imperatives. “The district is pretty much half-and-half,” says 31st Ward committeeman Joseph Berrios. “We’ve got to take consideration of the ethnics that are in there, so we try to do a balanced ticket.” Other committeemen point out that the Sixth Subcircuit has put more Latinos in the court than any other subcircuit precisely because they know how to compromise with the non-Latino committeemen. “Of course there’s not enough Latinos on the bench,” says 26th Ward committeeman Roberto Maldonado. “But the only place where Latinos have a real chance of getting elected has been at the subcircuit level. We have not grabbed 100 percent of the people that have gotten elected, but the majority from our subcircuit have been Latino.”

Leaving aside the question of what the proper ethnic calculus is, Ocasio’s chief contention is that while he may not have the resume of Chevere, he’s a lot more qualified than Lechowicz. Lechowicz says that’s just sour grapes and points to his trial experience in Vrdolyak’s firm and his current position as clerk for Cook County chief judge Timothy Evans. He hasn’t submitted his qualifications to the Chicago Bar Association or the Chicago Council of Lawyers to assess, perhaps understandably since they don’t usually rate candidates with less than ten years experience in the law. He also says he and Ocasio each had the opportunity to make a presentation before the committeemen. “I don’t know all of them,” he says. “I wouldn’t say there was any guarantee.” Billboards soon went up around the neighborhood with the names of both Chevere, the Harold Washington reformer, and Lechowicz, the Vrdolyak protege, under the slogan working together for equal justice.

Ocasio refused to pack it in. On his own he managed to get the required 2,000 signatures, survive a series of ballot challenges from Lechowicz’s lawyers, and win the endorsement of the Tribune, the Cook County Democratic Women’s Organization, and 35th Ward alderman and committeeman Rey Colon, who says his precinct workers will be distributing Ocasio’s literature. He also won the endorsement of the IVI-IPO–the only Sixth Subcircuit candidate to do so.

Ocasio and attorney Roxanne Rochester (rated “not recommended” by the Chicago Bar Association, “not qualified” by the Chicago Council of Lawyers, but “qualified” by nine other local bar associations) will face off against Lechowicz in the primary. Ocasio says some committeemen hinted they’d help him in the future if he got out of the race, but sticking it out has become a point of pride.

Lechowicz says he too is running hard. “Just because you’re the slated candidate doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to win,” he says. Though he immediately adds, “This district has yet to lose a slated candidate for judge.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Carlos J. Ortiz.