While Illinois voters may be familiar with the presidential and congressional candidates on the ballot this primary season, local judicial candidates don’t always have the same name recognition.
To help voters make informed decisions, Injustice Watch, a criminal and social justice reporting nonprofit, created an interactive guide with everything you need to know about the judges on the Cook County ballot. Reset caught up with editor Jonah Newman for all the details.
On why voters should pay attention to judicial races
Jonah Newman: Judges have a lot of power in our society. They make decisions, obviously, in criminal court about people’s guilt and innocence and about prison sentences. They decide whether you get a traffic ticket or let go. They decide whether people are evicted from their homes or whether a kid should be taken away from their parents. So, you know, I think they play a really important role. Circuit court judges, once elected, serve six-year terms and then are up for retention. And so once you’re on the bench, it’s pretty easy to stay on the bench. And so I think these primaries are important to watch.
On what the guide entails
Newman: We recognized that there was an information sort of hole, gap when it came to judicial elections, and so we go in-depth on candidates. We research their bios, we look into past controversies or potential issues. We collect the ratings that the various bar associations put together, and we put all that in an easy-to-use guide that you can get online.
The website gives you a few different ways to find what judicial subcircuit you’re in. That’ll help you create a ballot that’s geared specifically to you so that when you go into the polling booth, you know which races and which candidates you’re going to see on the ballot. And then you can click on the bios, look through the information we’ve provided, look at the ratings and then select the candidate that you’re interested in. There’s also an option to print out a PDF once you’ve done that so you can bring that into the booth with you and go prepared to vote for the judges that you’re most interested in.
On what to consider when voting for judges
Newman: I think … you should look at their experience. I think those bar association ratings are a pretty good barometer of, you know, whether they have … been in the courtroom, done trial work, if they have been an attorney for a long enough period of time to really get the lay of the land. I think looking at someone’s past experience as well. For some people, it matters whether someone’s been a prosecutor or a public defender, so we’ve noted that. Obviously the Democratic Party also provides their endorsements and there are other groups that endorse candidates as well, and we’ve included some of those on the guide as well. So some of the labor organizations will also issue their recommendations.
On this year’s most competitive races
Newman: I think the Supreme Court race is definitely one to watch. … It’s the seat that was formerly held by Charles Freeman. It is a seat that was held by a person of color for the first time and so there’s some racial dynamics there. There’s also a lot of money being poured into that race, in particular from one candidate, Shelly Harris, who’s poured, I think, almost $2 million of his own dollars into that race, so you’ve probably seen ads for him on TV, which is where a lot of that money is going. So I think that’ll be an interesting race to watch because it’s rare to have an open seat like that on the Supreme Court.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.