Why you should care about the Illinois judicial election

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If you're like most voters, when it comes to the enormous list of judges on this year's ballot, you might feel a little overwhelmed. A lot of people just skip it, or vote yes or no for the entire slate. With almost 70 people on the ballot, who can blame them?

Except that that long list of candidates are people who could actually affect the outcome of your life. Experiencing divorce, a child custody battle, foreclosure, eviction, or an arrest? A good judge could set you on the right track. But a bad one could do some serious damage, says Malcolm Rich, executive director of the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice.

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"People spend millions of billions on political campaigns, but on the other hand, these judges will ultimately decide whether the decisions made by those politicians will be enforced," says Rich.

That's why the Appleseed Fund started the website VoteforJudges,org, a one-stop shop for Illinois voters to figure out which judges should be retained and who should be sent packing.

The website pulls together the recommendation of three different Chicago law associations, as well as endorsements from the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune. Rich says it takes about 15 minutes to look through all the recommendations, but voters won't have to remember all 70 names in order to vote wisely.

"After looking at the list, a few names seem to pop up over and over again," said Rich.

Which names?

Dorothy F. Jones - Judge Jones spent 11 years in the Cook County Public Defender's Office and 18 years on the bench in the Circuit Court of Cook County. She told The Chicago Reporter back in 1992 that she didn't like the cronyism in the Chicago law scene. She doesn't believe in evaluations from bar associations, but the Sun-Times says that's cost her in credibility. But bar associations have more to complain about than the fact that she won't participate in the evaluation process. "The bar groups have found that Jones has very poor legal skills and acts unprofessionally on the bench," according to the Chicago Tribune. She was not recommended for retention by all five rating groups.

Susan J. McDunn - According to the Tribune, McDunn tried to sidetrack two adoptions by lesbian parents, using her personal beliefs as guidance, rather than the law. The Chicago Council of Lawyers says, "Many lawyers believe she has difficulty handling complex matters that come before her and that she demonstrates an inappropriate temperament." Again, all five groups did not recommend her.

Jim Ryan - Both the Sun-Times and the Tribune gave Ryan a thumbs down. He declined to testify in a police beatings trial, even though he was general counsel to the Cook County Sheriff at the time of the incident. The Chicago Bar Association says, "Judge Ryan does not possess the requisite legal knowledge, ability, and temperament to serve as a Circuit Court Judge." However, the Judicial Performance Commission recommended Ryan, but said he needs improvement.

Jeffrey Lawrence - Although the Chicago Bar Association found him qualified, the Council of Chicago Lawyers says he's often late to his court times and unprepared for cases. The Judicial Performance Council also did not recommend Lawrence.

William O'Neal - the Chicago Council of Lawyers says O'Neal doesn't always follow the law. The Tribune remembers him for a particular incident where he was "grandiosely reading aloud in court his several hundred page ruling throwing out a perjury conviction against a woman who testified in a racially charged criminal case." They did not recommend he be retained.

The Chicago Council of Lawyers had a wider list of judges it didn't recommend. Patrick T. Murphy, they say, is inconsistent in his rulings. "They say he often makes inappropriate, sometimes insulting remarks to the parties in front of him," says the CCL. Judge John Turner, CCL says, is  "short-tempered on the bench" and "does not always apply the law to the facts."

But even if what these associations say is true - these judges do have poor knowledge of the law, are rude, late and generally an embarrassment to the legal system - they'll likely keep their jobs. Why? Because most people don't know about all the bad behavior.

But these judges have enormous power. Even if you don't end up standing in front of one in a court room, their interpretation of the law could affect you personally.

"Judges make decisions that influence our policies because they decide whether legislation or federal actions or state legislative actions are gonna actually happen," Rich tells us.

Because we know that poor people and minorities have a disproportionately high rate of contact with the justice system, retaining bad judges is a particular problem for low-income communities of color. Rich says a good judge can recognize when a first time offender can benefit from probation or a treatment program, while a bad judge might just as well throw them in prison.

"A bad judge can make a life very very difficult for people who are trying to use the court system in the way that they are entitled," said Rich.

So sometime before you go to the polls, take ten minutes to surf through votesforjudges.org. Every plaintiff or defendant that comes before the court in Cook County will have you to thank for your good judgment.

 

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