It's well established that being poor and black means having a disproportionate amount of contact with the criminal justice system.
It's not just being picked up by the police or spending time behind bars. Judges are an integral part of the criminal justice system, too, and they're one of the few positions within that system that we as an electorate actually get to choose. You don't elect your local beat cop or even the police superintendent. But if you vote, you cast a ballot nearly every election for local judges who make crucial decisions in people's lives, especially low-income, minorities who studies show are more likely to end up in a courtroom.
"If you have lousy judges, the rule of law may not be applied fairly. If you have someone who is not abreast of changes in the law, that's something I think a litigant should be worried about," said Tom Boleky, a Chicago lawyer.
A lot of poor litigants, or people who are either defendants or plaintiffs in a case, don’t have their own attorneys, and they come into the courtroom not necessarily understanding all that’s going on, Boleky said.
“A good judge can explain it to them, be patient with them, and still get through their cases in a decent amount of time," he said.
Boleky is the head of the Chicago Bar Association's Judicial Evaluation Committee, which spends months researching judges and surveying attorneys who have worked with them.
"Judges are the people that they (voters) should care most about because it's the person who they're electing that they're most likely to face directly, but they're the officials they have least amount of information about," said Boleky.
What The Experts Say
That's why the Chicago Bar Association and a handful of other legal organizations try to help people with their list of who is worth keeping and who is worth removing. But the list has its limitations. For it to have much impact, voters must read it and take that knowledge with them to the polls on Election Day.
The list of judges who are up for retention and ones seeking to be elected is long--several pages long. And despite the fact that many judges have gotten bad reviews on these lists for years, they're still on the bench. Unless citizens educate themselves, Boleky said that's where they will likely remain.
I read through the CBA's report on judges, plus the reports from the Alliance of Bar Assocations(pdf), the Chicago Council of Lawyers(pdf), the Illinois Bar Association, the Cook County Judicial Performance Commission(pdf) and the Chicago Tribune editorial board's article. Frankly, I was stunned by some what I read. Did you know what some of these judges get away with? Showing up late, leaving hours early, not having a good grasp of the law, flying off the handle during court. If the rest of us behaved that way at work, we'd be fired, tout de suite.
But, the recommendations are also a bit confusing. Different organizations have different ratings for each judge. The majority of all the judges currently on the bench are doing a good job, according to all the reports. But a handful of them are problematic. Which ones? Well, I’m no legal expert, but I thought I’d help you sort out their recommendations by compiling a couple handy charts based on what the organizations said.
As I mentioned before, all the reports have different ways of saying whether a judge is worth their salt -- not recommended, not qualified, recommended, qualified, highly qualified. To make it easy, I listed them as "yes" when an organization said a judge is worth keeping, or "no" when a group found that the judge wasn’t. If a judge is not on this list, it means every group rated them positively.
The Chicago Alliance of Bar Associations is made up of 11 different organizations, each of which give their own rating for each judge, so for their report, I listed how many of the 11 organizations approved or disapproved of a judge. The Cook County Judicial Review Board does not give a yay or nay on judges, but instead gives a rundown of the judge's strengths and weaknesses. If the candidate had any weaknesses listed by the Judicial Review Board, they are listed as such. For a full rundown of what those weaknesses are, you can read the full report (pdf). The Chicago Council of Lawyers rates candidates as “highly qualified,” “well qualified,” “qualified,” or “not qualified," for every judge that participated in their screening process. Those who didn't participate are automatically designated "not recommended."
This first chart is on judges seeking retention--that is, they're already judges and are just up for reelection. We know more about these candidates, since they're already on the job. It's very rare that judges are not retained, even though a few of them seem to be downright terrible at their jobs:
Next up, here's a chart of people up for election. Again, I've only included people who got any unsatisfactory rating from any of the associations. It's worth noting that the majority of people up for judicial elections are running unopposed, even a few of the candidates listed here. So, if you find your subcircuit court on here and a candidate is listed as unqualified, you may not have a choice. It's them or nobody. As the Chicago Tribune's editorial board noted, "Some of those candidates gliding onto the court are terribly unqualified. Chief Judge Timothy Evans will have to find a place to put them where they'll do the least harm."
My goal in writing this post was to make it easier for you to be educated about who you are voting for on Election Day. The trouble is, it's still not easy. There are a lot of names, and for many of them, even the people in the know can't agree whether they're worth keeping.
But like I said before, these are the people you are actually most likely to come into contact with, who are most likely to make a difference in your life, of all the people on your Nov. 6th ballot.
And if not you, then definitely people from low-income communities of color. If you care about race and poverty in this city, here's a clear cut way to help.
Photo credit: Shutterstock/Stern Judge