The long-time head of Cook County’s circuit court is facing a rare challenge this week.
On Thursday afternoon, 241 judges will meet on the 17th floor of the Daley Center to choose their leader.
Chief Judge Timothy Evans is running for his sixth term. He was first elected 15 years ago and was only challenged in 2010.
This time he is being challenged by two of his fellow judges, former alderman Tom Allen and long-time attorney Sandra Ramos. If Evans is not retained as chief judge he will return to the bench.
Ramos currently presides over preliminary felony hearings in a courtroom in Englewood. Allen hears cases in the chancery division in the Daley Center.
In an interview with WBEZ, Ramos was critical of Evans, and compared herself to President Barack Obama and Senator Bernie Sanders.
“It’s not a want to, it’s a have to,” she said about running.
Ramos said she decided to run after she saw Evans exercise too much influence over who was picked to fill judge vacancies. Ramos said Evans hand-picked the nominating committee, instead of letting the judges have their say.
“If he controls the nominating committee, how much control will he have over who gets nominated?” Ramos asked rhetorically. “The system is not supposed to yield [to the chief judge].”
Ramos said that selection process is a symptom of deeper problems with Evans’ leadership, which is lacking in transparency, communication and diversity.
“As a Hispanic woman I have to note we are not represented” in Evans’ hand-picked nominating committee, Ramos said.
But Evans said Ramos is way off base.
He noted more than 80 percent of the county’s judges approved his committee choices, proving it was not a top-down approach.
“I’m afraid she doesn’t know exactly how the system works if that’s what she said,” Evans said. “But she’s relatively new and it’s understandable that she may not be as familiar with [the selection process] as I am.”
Ramos was first elected judge in 2010.
Ramos says despite her years of experience in private practice and as a prosecutor, she spent three years in traffic court while she watched less qualified judges promoted past her because they were politically connected.
“We do not make any decisions based on any political influence at all,” Evans countered. “When we take our oath with that black robe on we put politics aside. I consider this process to be free of political influence, and I consider it to be a high and noble calling.”
Finally, Ramos promised more communication with her fellow judges if she’s elected, but it’s not clear how likely that is.
Ramos described herself as an “Obama-esque” outsider, because her two opponents are both former aldermen. She said she is not a politician, and campaigning doesn’t come natural to her.
It is Allen — who did not return calls from WBEZ — who seems to have Evans supporters most concerned.
In a Facebook post Monday, Ald. Carrie Austin, 34th, called it “a crying shame” that judges might consider voting against Evans. She wrote that Democratic party leaders should be pushing judges to back him, and criticized black politicians for supporting Allen.
“They should be supporting [Evans, but] they would rather have Tom Allen who has not done a damn thing for blacks,” Austin wrote.
On Wednesday, a group of black ministers sent out a press release calling for unity among black judges and politicians, and warning that if Evans loses, judges could be at risk of losing their place on the bench.
Evans said he is not bothered by the rare challenge.
“I don’t expect to be in a position as popular as chief judge of one of the largest unified court systems in the world and never have anyone else seek to apply for that same position,” Evans said. “Our judges … will make the decision as to who has the best experience … and I think I have that.”
He said he wants to continue his work expanding the county’s specialty courts, like drug court or mental health court.
“I would like to continue to develop courts like that,” Evans said. “These are the kinds of problem solving approaches that I have embraced and I want to continue that so that we could move the system even closer to justice.”
Ramos, however, says it is time for a change.
“We should never have someone sitting as chief judge for 16 years.”
Patrick Smith is a WBEZ producer and reporter. Follow him @pksmid.