Until last year the system for electing judges in Cook County was so bewildering that only legal scholars understood it. So it was changed. Now even the experts are confused.

“The system is utter chaos, lunacy–impossible to understand,” says Cook County circuit-court judge Sheldon Gardner. “OK, so I understand it. But I’m supposed to: I’m a judge. Although to tell you the truth, sometimes even I get confused.”

In the past, most judges were elected by voters from all over the county. Now some judges, like Gardner, will be elected from one of 15 newly drawn subcircuit districts, others will be elected county-wide, and others will be appointed by other judges. All of those judges will have county-wide jurisdiction, even though some of them will have been elected by voters in only one small section of the county. Got it?

“You’d think they would make it simple–with all judges elected from subcircuits, or all judges appointed, or all judges selected on merit by a blue-ribbon panel–but they don’t,” says Gardner, who’s running in a north-side district in the March 17th Democratic primary. “Sometimes I think they want people to be confused.”

Part of the confusion of the judicial election process–new or old–stems from the system’s size. It’s enormous; more than 300 courtrooms are overseen by about 365 judges all over the county. Of those judges, 175 are full circuit-court judges, elected by the voters, with a salary of $81,000 and first crack at choice courtroom assignments. The system’s 190 associate judges, in contrast, make $76,000 and are appointed to their slots by the full judges.

“Supposedly associate judges are appointed on the basis of their experience,” says Rich Means, state chairman of the Independent Voters of Illinois/Independent Precinct Organization, which monitors the election of judges. “Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a lot of political contacts. This is, after all, Cook County.”

Gardner was appointed to fill an associate-judge vacancy in 1988. At the time, he was a 60-year-old expert on campaign laws and a veteran courtroom practitioner. And yet, like all newly appointed associate judges, he began his term with the standard six-month stint in traffic court.

“Traffic court enables you to handle the transition from being a lawyer to being a judge,” says Gardner, who went from traffic court to housing court and now serves in divorce court. “A lawyer is an advocate; a judge is objective. But when you first get on the bench you have to resist the urge to get in the middle of a case. That’s some introduction, traffic court. You’ve never seen a volume like it in your life. Imagine dealing with 600 tickets a day.”

Full judges, on the other hand, never have to spend a day in traffic court if they don’t want to. Once elected, they run unopposed, needing a yes vote from 60 percent of the voters to be retained for another six-year term. (Like the associate judges, they have to wait for a judicial vacancy to get the job in the first place.)

“Running for judge can be the most difficult election of them all,” says Marc Samuel Blesoff, a member of the Oak Park Village board of trustees and judicial candidate in the March election. “First of all there are so many candidates it’s nearly impossible to generate much interest in any one race. Secondly, you don’t have your bread-and-butter issues, like schools or taxes. All you can do is say that you will be fair and honest and that you will respect the law. And make sure that everyone you know gets out and votes.”

The names of the judicial candidates are usually shoved to the bottom of the ballot, territory only the most diligent voters will brave. Unless a judge has gained notoriety from a particularly outrageous decision, only lawyers or political junkies would recognize his or her name.

“Supposedly, the best thing a judicial candidate can have is an Irish name,” says Gardner. “The theory goes that Poles, Jews, and Italians won’t vote for each other but they’ll all vote for the Irish guy. The Irish name is supposedly generic. Of course, you can have an Irish name without being Irish, so none of this really means a thing. Look, I’m not saying I believe it. It’s just a theory. But you have to admit it is remarkable how many judges we have with Irish names. We call it the Irish Sweepstakes.”

The outcome of such low-profile races also often hinges on newspaper or party endorsements. “If you have a bunch of precinct captains standing on the corner passing out palm cards with your name on them, it’s a big advantage,” says Gardner. All of which may explain why the old system made it so hard for independents, Republicans, African Americans, or Hispanics to get elected.” So two years ago an unlikely combination of inner-city black legislators joined forces with white Republicans from the suburbs to pass a bill creating the subcircuit-district elections.

“The idea was that you could increase the number of black and Hispanic judges by creating judicial districts with mostly black and Hispanic voters,” says Means. “It was also a chance for the Republicans to make some gains by creating all-suburban districts.”

The legislators created 15 districts; eventually 165 judges will be elected from these districts, 88 will be elected county-wide, and 130 associate judges will be appointed by the full judges.

In the March primaries, there will be two candidates elected from each district. But not all candidates in each district will be vying for the same seat. Instead, each district will have two races for two separate seats. All told, about 150 candidates have filed for the 30 seats.

“You would think that they would just have everyone run, with the two top getting elected, but no, that would be too logical,” says Gardner. “Instead the prevailing attitude is that every vacancy should be treated as a separate race. So in my case, voters on the north side will have to select one candidate among eight names, and another candidate among six different names. I know it’s confusing. But don’t blame me–I didn’t make the rules.”

The elections create opportunities for dozens of would-be judges. “It’s easier for someone like me to win out of a subcircuit rather than county-wide because I can work my base,” says Blesoff, who works for the Cook County public defender’s office. “It will cost me about $30,000 to run the campaign I want. I’m having a fund-raiser in February. I’m bringing in a first-class magician, and I’ll be charging 50 bucks a head. I hope to raise $10,000 from that. I’ll do direct mailings and buy newspaper ads. After that, it’s a matter of getting out the vote.”

Ironically, the new elections are so confusing that they may elevate the value of the very party endorsements they were supposed to undercut. Which explains why Gardner, a lifelong independent who helped organize the election watchdog group Project LEAP (Legal Elections in All Precincts), found himself seeking the regular Democratic Party’s endorsement.

“The slating meeting was held in a room at the Ambassador Hotel,” says Gardner. “There was Ann Stepan, committeeman of the 43rd Ward, Ed Rosewell of the 46th, Mike Volini of the 48th, and representatives from the 44th and 49th wards. My speech was simple: I told them that they didn’t owe me anything, but that they had an obligation to put forth the best candidate.”

Gardner didn’t get the nod.

“Stepan and Rosewell got candidates from their own organizations slated,” says Gardner. “The way I heard it, they felt I didn’t need this job because I was already a judge. You have to look at it from their perspective. A committeeman’s function is to give out jobs. They probably figured, ‘This guy’s already a judge, why should we waste a slot on him?”‘

So Gardner decided to run without the party’s backing. “Why should the party’s decision stop me?” he says. “I have goals. I’d like to go back to housing court; there are things I could do there. Besides, it’s not like I’m without support. I have a wide range of friends and allies from 34 years in politics. I hear some of these young lawyers talking. They say, ‘Oh, if I get good ballot position and turnout’s low, maybe I can win.’ Well, the hell with that. I’ve been in the public eye for 35 years. I’d like to think that the name Sheldon Gardner means something.

“Maybe I’ll lose. But I hope I don’t lose because I don’t have the right name or the support of the regular organization. This system is crazy. It’s not a merit system. But I’d like to think that I would win or lose on the merits of my career.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.