In Cook County, judges now are born, not made
by RUSS STEWART
Several generations ago, the joke in Cook County legal circles was that judges were not born, they were made, by the bosses of the Cook County Democratic Machine, and were doled out on the basis of ethnicity.
Now, the joke in Cook County legal circles are that judges are not born, they’re named, by their parents, with a big assist from DNA.
Want to grow up to be a judge, a position which pays $183,000 a year? First, be a female. Second, be baptized in a Catholic Church, with a name like Colleen Kaitlin MacIntosh, Bridget Maureen O’Shaunnessy or Kerry Deidre Kennedy. Third, go to law school locally, not on the East Coast or Berkeley. Fourth, be a Democrat. Fifth, be born in, live in, or have family in the Southwest Side 19th Ward. Sixth, go the work for the state’s attorney, the attorney general or the corporation counsel, thereby making important connections and avoiding the risk of income loss in private practice. Seventh, run for judge in a primary against several men with non-Irish surnames.
If you are a male lawyer with a Greek, Italian, Polish, Slavic, Indian, Pakistani, Asian, Hispanic or Russian surname, or any name ending in a vowel, the reality is simple: Forget about it. You cannot win. You can only hope to get on the bench by appointment. An Irish, Scots, English or Germanic surname is obligatory, and having a gender-confusing first name such as Sean, Kelly or Kerry helps.
You also can just change your name. James G. Smith was elected to the Circuit Court in 1994 from a suburban subcircuit as a Republican. In 2000 he ran for the Appellate Court as a Democrat and lost. In 2002 he ran for the Appellate Court again, this time as James Fitzgerald Smith, and won.
In 2014, there will be 11 judges elected countywide, 14 from 15 subcircuits and three to the Appellate Court. In one race, the only Democrat is named Patricia O’Brien Sheahan. Why bother? She’s unbeatable.
There are 24 justices from the 1st Appellate District, which covers Cook County, all Democrats. Of that number, 11 were appointed by the state Supreme Court, usually being elevated from the Circuit Court. There are 272 elected Circuit Court judges, paid $183,000, with 155 being elected from the county’s 15 subcircuits. They run for retention countywide every 6 years, and they must get a 60 percent retention vote to stay on the bench. There are 143 associate judges, who earn $174,000, serve 4 years, and are appointed by their fellow judges. Each judge receives $500 annually from Cook County, entitling them to free health insurance; they also get an 80 percent pension.
Since Republicans are never elected judge, the Democratic primary is the key.
The sticky point comes when a full judge retires, dies, resigns or is elevated. Then the appointee must run for nomination and election in the next election year. That means that a lot of men with polysyllabic names get appointed but never spend more than 2 years as a judge.
In past primaries a glut of lawyers have flooded the ballot. Twenty-four candidates ran countywide for judicial office in 2008, 26 ran in 2010, and 32 ran in 2012. A total of 32 candidates have filed this year, with 14 to be nominated — about half the usual number.
Why the low interest? First, campaign costs are rising. Slated candidates are required to pay the Democratic Party the sum of $30,000. That $420,000 is used to defray the cost of printing literature and mailing expenses.
Second, judicial ethics preclude aspirants from taking positions on issues or getting donations from special interests or corporations. Hence, any campaign must be self-funded, with a few dollars from family, friends and fellow lawyers. A decent race costs $50,000 to $75,000.
Third, a lot of lawyers don’t think running for judge is worth their time. They may not have the right-sounding name or they may not want to put their private practice and livelihood at risk. If they work for a large firm, many of which are downsizing, they cut their billable hours. They have to spend hours driving to various party functions, passing nominating petitions, getting 5,000-plus signatures, and donating to Democratic ward and township organizations.
Fourth, Cook County Democratic Party chairman Joe Berrios moved judicial slating to August. All the legal insiders were aware of that fact, but most lawyers were not. The attorneys with clout-heavy support, such as from Ed Burke, Mike Madigan, Dick Mell, Berrios and the 19th Ward, were chosen, and those who promised not to run in the 2014 primary if they were bypassed got a redeemable IOU for 2016 or 2018.
Voters know nothing about judicial contenders. Various bar associations make recommendations. Perhaps 10 percent of voters read the list and vote accordingly, but if three or four candidates are all "qualified," voters look at name, gender and local party endorsement.
Here’s a look at 2014 contests:
Appellate Court: There are three vacancies. David Ellis is unopposed for the "Murphy vacancy." He lives in River Forest, and he just happens to be the general counsel for the Speaker of the Illinois House — Madigan. What Boss Mike wants Boss Mike gets. Instead of spending a decade in the lowly Circuit Court, hearing tedious traffic, housing, juvenile or divorce cases, the Madigan connection rocketed Ellis straight to the Appellate Court.
The slated choice for the "Steele vacancy" is John Simon, the son of the late Seymour Simon, who was the lead partner at Jenner and Block and a close advisor of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. Simon will raise a bundle from Loop lawyers and Jewish groups. He will easily defeat Judge Sharon Odom Johnson.
The least predictable is the "Gordon vacancy." Former Chicago alderman Fredrenna Lyle was appointed to the Circuit Court in 2011, elected in 2012, and slated for the Appellate Court in 2013, but she has no clear shot. Also running are appointed Justice Sheldon Harris, Circuit Court Judge Susan Kennedy Sullivan, who was elected in 2010 and who sits in Juvenile Court, and Nichole Patton. Can one man beat three women? Not likely. Lyle’s ballot name telegraphs her race, and she will get solid black support, but Sullivan’s ballot name is pure gold. She will win.
Circuit Court: The "name game" is evolving fast and furious. Judge Daniel Kubasiak, who sits in Traffic Court, was slated for the "Egan vacancy." Kubasiak is the only Polish American on the slate. Kubasiak was the chief legal counsel to the City Council Finance Committee during the Washington-Sawyer years, and he has the respect of black politicians, but he has two foes, Richard Ryan of Evergreen Park and Sarah Cunningham of the 19th Ward. Two men, one Irish-surnamed woman — guess who wins?
For the "Arnold vacancy," Judge Al Swanson of River Forest gets a second crack. Swanson has the backing of state Senator Don Harmon, who is close to Illinois Senate President John Cullerton. Swanson was appointed in 2011, lost in 2012 and was re-appointed in 2013, and he likely will lose in 2014. His opponent is Bridget Mitchell, a private practitioner from the 19th Ward.
Another Madigan protege has the inside track for the "Connors vacancy." Brendan O’Brien, formerly an attorney on the speaker’s staff who now works for a blue chip Loop firm, wasn’t slated. Nor was Peter Vilkelis, who sits in Juvenile Court. Kristal Rivers, an African-American woman who spent 10 years with the Dallas, Texas, prosecutor’s office and who practices condominium law, was slated. Vilkelis’ name is hopeless, but Rivers’ name doesn’t "sound black." Toss-up.
Cynthia Cobbs, a black former social worker who was once a judge in Will County and who moved back to Orland Park, was slated for the "McDonald vacancy." Her name is neutral. She faces Linda Mastandrea, an attorney and a Paralympic athlete who was on the mayor’s Olympic committee. Her vowel problem is fatal.
For the "Neville vacancy," Bill Raines, a former Chicago cop, sheriff’s deputy and assistant state’s attorney, proved that persistence pays. He is a criminal defense attorney, and he has been trying to get slated for a decade. He appeared before the slatemakers in 2011 and extracted a promise of slating in 2013 if he didn’t run against the party in 2012. He delivered, and they delivered. He has three female foes: Carolyn Gallagher, a real estate tax specialist who lost her house due to a $170,000 tax lien, Patricia Spratt and Alice Melchor. Raines will win.
For the "Reyes vacancy," Maureen O’Donoghue Hannon, an assistant state’s attorney, will defeat the slated Diana Rosario and Greg LaPapa based on her name.
Judge Andrea Buford, who sits in the Traffic Court, was slated for the "Veal vacancy." She is well known in African-American legal circles. Opposing her is James Patrick Crawley, an openly gay trial attorney, and Kelly Maloney Kachmarik, who has 19th Ward roots. Edge to Crawley.
Maritza Martinez, Caroline Moreland, Thomas Carroll and Sheahan are unopposed.
Several subcircuit races are interesting. In the Far Northwest Side 10th District, appointed Judge Tony Kyriakopoulos will give it the old college try. He faces Katherine O’Dell, the daughter-in-law of heavyweight Chicago attorney Len Amari, who will be well funded. Another no-brainer. O’Dell wins.
On the North Lakefront, where women always beat men, the predictable is inevitable. In one primary Abbey Fishman Romanek faces four men, in another Megan Goldish faces two men, including Judge Jerry Esrig, and in a third Anjana Hansen, who is Asian, faces a man and a woman. All are backed by U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky’s organization.
Finally, in the Oak Park/36th Ward/38th Ward 11th Subcircuit, Harmon will put another judge on the bench. Pamela Meyerson ran and lost in 2012, but she will beat three others in March.
Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www. russstewart.com.