The Election File Voting Guide: Should I ‘retain’ these judges, or boot them?

October 26, 2010

Among the long list of elected officials Illinois voters will be asked to select this year are the judges. Yeah – we know – many of you skip over this part of the ballot. But there are good reasons not to do that.
 
First, the basics: you will be asked to elect judges to fill vacancies (although in Cook County, at least, most of those are uncontested races), and you will be asked whether to “retain” judges already on the bench.

 

Doing your homework on retention judges
 
To keep their jobs, judges need to win 60-percent of the vote on November 2nd. Sixty-eight judges are seeking retention, though the ballot will show you 69. That’s because one judge originally planning to seek retention is no longer doing so: Supreme Court Justice Thomas Fitzgerald, who is retiring.
 
So without knowing a whole lot about these judges and their records, how do you decide whether to vote YES or NO on retention? The Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice maintains a website, VoteForJudges.org, which compiles scorecards put out by various bar associations. Here’s a quick rundown of the recommendations for Cook County judges:
And the newspapers’ editorial boards have also weighed-in: 
  • Chicago Tribune: Endorsed all Cook County judges for retention except for Dorothy F. Jones, Susan J. McDunn, William D. O’Neal and Jim Ryan.
  • Chicago Sun-Times: Endorsed all Cook judges for retention except for Dorothy F. Jones, Susan J. McDunn and Jim Ryan.

On Friday and over the weekend, I called the chambers of each judge who got an unfavorable recommendation, and left a message. Calling me back first was Patrick T. Murphy, who received a "not qualified" rating from the Chicago Council of Lawyers. Ironically, "the only bar association I belong to is the Chicago Council of Lawyers," Murphy told me. "I have enormous respect for them."

The council wrote of Murphy, "Some say that he fails to follow the law, ruling in a way that he believes is correct." Murphy says he considers the second half of that sentence to be "a great compliment," and notes that Illinois divorce law allows him the latitude to consider a number of factors when ruling on a case. He says he doesn't understand the poor rating from the council, but thinks it originated with some disgruntled divorce attorneys.

UPDATE: Likewise, Judge Laurence Dunford blames his "not qualified" rating from the Chicago Council of Lawyers on lawyers who didn't get their way. Dunford says he has a "difficult" assignment as a supervising judge that requires him to move cases along quickly. "Lawyers sometimes allow cases to be put on the back-burner and don’t like it when a judge calls them task." He guesses the attorneys who complained about him  "were upset because I did not give them what they wanted. I don’t know. But my obligation is to have cases go to trial…and sometimes that creates conflicts with lawyers."

All judges likely to keep their jobs

Worth noting: despite the efforts of the bar associations to defeat judges they say are unfit for the bench, sitting judges rarely lose. Here is the Appleseed Fund for Justice’s Malcolm Rich: 

“Since the 1960s, there have been 14 judges that have not been retained in Cook County. So in general, judges are always – or nearly always – retained. Because in Cook County while there have been 14 that have not been retained throughout the history of our retention process, there have been no judges that have been not retained since 1990.”
A political action committee, of sorts, for judges
 
And at least one group wants to keep that streak alive. Every judge seeking retention in Cook County has the support of the Committee for Retention of Judges in Cook County. Of course, the very purpose of the group is to retain these judges, and those up for retention have (nearly) all contributed $1000 to it this year. So bragging about that endorsement is a bit like Pat Quinn boasting that he has the complete support of the group Taxpayers for Quinn.
 
 
Judge Ed Washington II chairs the public relations committee of the judge’s committee. Here he is explaining why Cook County voters should retain all the judges on the ballot this year:
"We seek the voters out there to retain all the judges because we look at the tested and collective experience of all these judges. And we feel that we have been committed to doing a good job. The circuit court of Cook County takes about 2.4-million filings a year. And the judges that are up for retention have been doing that job for at least one term, if not some of them two or three six-year terms. And we’ve been evaluated by a lot of groups, we make decisions that are very important and we’re dedicated to our work. And in order to have an independent and fair and impartial judiciary, we need the people’s support."
I pointed out to Washington that not all of those groups that have evaluated Cook County’s judges have found them all to be good enough to keep on the job. I asked him why voters should listen to a group funded in part by the judges themselves, instead of the bar associations.
“I think people should check out a number of sources – and whatever sources that they are comfortable with - in making their decision to vote on judges. I don’t advocate that you don’t look and make your own informed decision. But if you consider the type of work we do, the number of cases that we have and how the courts have functioned over time, there’s no way you’re going to have an independent judiciary with integrity and they’re not going to be some decisions at some point that either some people or some entities or organizations disagree with.”
Washington’s group is funded, as I mentioned, by the judges themselves. But it also accepts outside donations, the majority of which come from lawyers and law firms. Washington denies that presents any conflict of interest. (Others, like the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, disagree, and call for public funding of judicial elections.)
 
Elections contests that aren’t (for the most part) contested
 
In addition to judges seeking to be retained, voters will be asked about judges looking to be elected for the first time, and those going for a promotion. Across Cook County, there are 24 of these judges running in the general election. All but one is uncontested, because the GOP and Green Party basically sit out these elections. The exception is a circuit court vacancy, in which Maureen Masterson Pulia, a Republican, is running against Democrat Daniel J. Gallagher. Most bar associations find both candidates to be qualified, though the Tribune favors Gallagher.
 
 
The other 23 races were, in essence, decided back in February. Take, for example, former Cook County Clerk of Court Aurelia Pucinski, who’s been a judge since 2004. She wanted to move up the ladder, and in February won the Democratic nomination for an appellate court vacancy. Pucincki was not the favorite candidate of most bar groups. The Chicago Bar association, in its primary election scorecard, wrote, “Judge Pucinski is well regarded for her diligence and work ethic, but lacks the depth and breadth of legal knowledge to serve as an Appellate Court Justice.” Nonetheless, Pucinski – who’s the daughter of the late Congressman Roman Pucinski – won the five-person primary. And with no Republican or Green Party nominee seeking the seat on the November ballot, Pucinski’s going to win. Once again, Marlcolm Rich:
“There is very little [for a voter] to do. Judge Pucinski will be elected to the Illinois Appellate Court because of the system that we have. And we only hope that she can become a better appellate justice than the bar groups think that she will be. But the bottom line is that in all these uncontested races – judicial races – those judges that you see, qualified or not qualified, will become judges.”
For her part, Pucinksi insists she's ready for the promotion.
"In those reports from the bar groups, they all complimented my work ethic, and gave me high praise for my work ethic - everyone knows that I am a hard worker - and for knowing the law. So I am confident that I can do the job. I look forward to it. I like the give-and-take of trial work, but I like the brainiac part - the research and writing part of it - too. And I am very excited about the opportunity to serve this community at the appellate court."
And even though she doesn't have a general election opponent, Pucinski says she's still been out campaigning. 'I've been pretty aggressive in this campaign for someone who doesn't have opposition, because I want people to know that I'm really, sincerely, asking for their vote."