The first Cook County judge in decades to be thrown out by voters says critics who accused him of racial bias “misrepresented” his record on the bench.
Judge Matthew E. Coghlan, speaking with WBEZ after Tuesday’s election, flatly denied the bias allegations, which focused largely on his sentencing.
“Some of those cases,” Coghlan said, “were taken out of context with no background as to whether or not those individuals — what their criminal history was. Were they selling drugs? Were they on parole? Was the case reduced? Was it an agreement with the State’s Attorney’s Office which I just went along with?”
Coghlan was the target of a low-budget but withering campaign by civil-rights lawyers, criminal-justice reform groups, police accountability activists and eventually some local Democratic Party leaders.
The judge finished with less than 53 percent of the vote, short of the 60 percent needed to stay on the bench. That result made him the first judge rejected for retention by Cook County voters in 28 years.
Illinois requires a retention election — a yes-or-no vote — for circuit court judges every six years.
Opponents of Coghlan’s retention pointed to his cases reversed on appeal. The judge said his critics distorted those reversals.
“I’ve found 10 of them,” Coghlan said. “In two of those, the (Illinois) Supreme Court accepted and then reversed the appellate court. Three more were based on a change in law and the Supreme Court again reversed the appellate court. And then a few others were based on ineffective assistance of counsel and nothing that I had done.”
Coghlan has served on the bench since 2000, mostly in the court’s criminal division. Earlier he was a Chicago firefighter and a Cook County assistant state’s attorney.
In the WBEZ interview, Coghlan addressed accusations about his work as a prosecutor in a 1993 murder case. He allegedly conspired with now-disgraced former Chicago police Det. Reynaldo Guevara and others to fabricate false testimony that led to the convictions of Armando Serrano and Jose Montanez.
Serrano and Montanez both spent 23 years in prison before they were exonerated in 2016. Last year, they filed civil-rights lawsuits against Coghlan, Guevara and others.
In court filings this summer, Coghlan denied the allegations against him.
“Individual decisions I’ve made have been taken out of context to further the agenda of the lawyers,” he told WBEZ, referring to attorneys who stand to reap a portion of the damages sought by Serrano and Montanez.
Coghlan, though “disappointed” by his election defeat, said he considers himself fortunate.
“I had the honor of serving on the court for 18 years,” he said. “A lot of lawyers and people aspire to the bench and never get the opportunity.”
As he prepares for the end of his term next month, Coghlan said he is pondering advice years ago from his father, a criminal-defense attorney.
“When I graduated from law school, my father gave me a sign that said, ‘There is but one rule of conduct for a man — to do the right thing,’ ” said Coghlan. “I’ve always tried to live by that slogan.”
And Coghlan, 56, said he is not finished. “I’m looking forward to my next opportunity to serve.”
Will he practice law?
“I haven’t thought that far in advance.”
Return to firefighting?
“I think that ship has sailed,” Coghlan said, laughing. “I’m counting my blessings. My children are healthy and my wife loves me, so I’ll be fine.”
Correction: Judge Coghlan spoke with WBEZ after Tuesday's election.