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Maggie Sivit

Five commonly asked questions about judicial elections

The 2022 midterm elections are less than a week away and early in-person voting is well underway. But at “Curious City,” we’ve heard from a lot of people who are confused about one key part of the ballot: voting for judges.

While the candidates listed on this section of the ballot might be more obscure, the decisions that judges make have a direct impact on people’s lives, including who might get custody of the children in a divorce and whether someone is sent to prison.

So as part of our ongoing collaboration with Injustice Watch, we’re answering your last-minute questions about how judicial elections work and where you can find more information about the candidates on the upcoming ballot.

How can I get a list of candidates for judge in Cook County, as well as current judges up for retention?

Before you visit your polling place, you can find a sample ballot online. If you’re voting in Chicago, you can find your sample ballot by visiting the Chicago Board of Elections website. If you’re voting in suburban Cook County, visit the Cook County Clerk’s website.

On Part B of your sample ballot, you will see the list of 61 judges who are up for retention. You have to vote “yes” or “no” to keep each of them on the bench for another term.

Injustice Watch provides a judicial election guide with comprehensive information on every judge on the ballot for retention in Cook County. The guide lists the judges in the same order as they will appear on your ballot. It is within your rights as a voter to bring a sample ballot or other notes or your phone into the voting booth.

What is the difference between a circuit court judge and a subcircuit judge in Cook County?

Outside elections? Nothing. Subcircuits exist for the sole purpose of diversifying the pool of judges in Cook County. In 1991, Cook County was split into 15 subcircuits, which are geographic subdivisions similar to wards or congressional districts. When candidates run for judge for the first time, they must choose a vacant seat up for a countywide vote or one from a subcircuit. To run for a subcircuit vacancy, the candidate must live in that subcircuit, and only voters in that subcircuit will see them on their ballots.

Most of the races for vacant judicial seats were decided in the June primary, but there remains one contested race, with a Democratic and a Republican candidate, in the 13th subcircuit on the far northwest side of the county. This year, the subcircuits were redrawn for the first time to add five additional subcircuits starting in the 2024 election.

Once elected, judges from subcircuits are no different than the ones elected by countywide vote. Being from a subcircuit doesn’t have any bearing on the assignments that judges receive, and it doesn’t mean that those judges will handle cases in that subcircuit.

How can I look up the decision records of a Cook County judge?

Unfortunately, it is notoriously difficult to find the decision records of Cook County judges. Even basic questions about a judge’s caseload are hard to answer. That’s because in Illinois, the courts are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. However, there are ways to become more informed about the judicial candidates on the ballot.

In its judicial election guide, Injustice Watch has information about each retention judge’s salary, current assignments, past legal experience, noteworthy cases they’ve handled, as well as the bar association recommendations and endorsements. They also include the judges’ answers to their survey, which asked each judge how they’ve grappled with the power that they hold over the lives of the people in the courtrooms. The closest metric to a decision record for a judge is their history of appellate court reversals. A reversal is when the higher court overturns a judge’s decision, in whole or in part. While a judge’s decisions can be reversed for many reasons, from technical minutia to an abuse of the judge’s discretion, reversals are rare and they are important to pay attention to, especially if a judge has been reversed often.

Why do some Cook County circuit court judge positions only have one candidate on the ballot?

Cook County voters will be deciding two things on Election Day when it comes to judges: which judges will retain their spot on the bench and which candidates will fill vacancies. (A vacancy happens when a judge retires, resigns, dies, or loses a retention election.)

One of the reasons there is only one candidate listed on this part of the ballot is because in Cook County, a vast majority of judicial candidates are Democrats. So most of these elections were decided in Democratic primaries in June.

The other portion of the Cook County judicial ballot is where voters decide whether to retain — or reelect — a judge who’s already served on the bench for at least a full term. Judges running for retention don’t face challengers; voters are asked whether each judge should get another term. Each judge must receive at least 60% plus one of the “yes” votes to remain on the bench.

If I don’t fill in ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on my ballot for a judge, how does that get counted?

Your ballot will not count as a “yes” or “‘no” if you leave both bubbles blank for a retention candidate. By not voting, however, you shrink the pool of votes that are considered in deciding whether a judge stays on the bench.

A retention candidate needs at least 60% plus one of the votes cast in their race to be “yes” to stay on the bench. Whereas vacant judicial positions are essentially determined in the primary election, the stakes are higher for retention candidates on Election Day. There has to be a large pool of votes cast to achieve a high threshold for retention candidates. If too many voters leave both bubbles blank, the retention candidate will need few “yes” votes overall to stay on the bench.

As with any election, high voter turnout ensures a more meaningful and representative outcome. This is why it is important to walk into your polling place with an understanding of which judges you will vote to keep on the bench and why.

Thanks to Ted Pearson, Sharyon Cosey, Thomas Hansen and Tony Messerges for submitting their questions about judicial elections.

Maya Dukmasova is a senior reporter at Injustice Watch covering judges and the courts.

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