DOWNTOWN — Like it or not, voters get to be the jury in determining which local judges should be elected and which seated judges should be retained as part of Tuesday's general election.
The problem? Voters don't know (and many don't care) about the judges in question.
Cook County Clerk David Orr has been arguing against voting to select or remove judges for years but hasn't been able to stop it.
"Electing judges through retention contests undermines the quality of judges, in part because there are just too many on the ballot," Orr posted in a Huffington Post blog. "Judicial retention races are a paradox, where too much democracy means no democracy at all."
Orr argued that judicial retention votes were ineffective, with no judge having been voted out of office since 1990. Instead, he favors merit selection of judges.
"Judicial retention voting really doesn't work very well, simply because it is so hard for voters to really know who is qualified and who is not," said Bob Crawford, a retired longtime political reporter for WBBM-AM. "Fortunately, voters can follow the recommendations of the bar associations, but they do not always agree, adding more confusion to the landscape."
Voting for a judge is a complicated process involving a lot of unknown names, but the Alliance of Bar Associations for Judicial Screening attempts to simplify things by putting out a list of all Cook County judicial candidates and those up for retention and whether they're recommended or not by the 11 bar associations making up the alliance.
The only candidates rejected by all 11 are Rhonda Crawford (indicted for allegedly donning a judge's robe, sitting on the bench and hearing cases earlier this year) in the 1st subcircuit; D. Renee Jackson in the 2nd subcircuit; and Matthew Link in the 14th subcircuit. Crawford faces opposition from Maryam Ahmad as a registered write-in candidate, but Jackson and Link are unopposed.
In the 13th subcircuit, Republican Kevin Michael O'Donnell was ruled qualified or recommended by only three of the 11 associations, while Democrat Kay Steffen was endorsed to varying degrees by all of them.
Others receiving multiple rejections include Democrat Janet Cronin Mahoney in the 12th subcircuit, running against Republican James Leonard Allegretti, endorsed by all. In another vacancy in the 12th, Republican Thomas William Flannigan, was rejected by six associations and running against Democrat Marguerite Anne Quinn, endorsed by all 11.
The Illinois State Bar Association found that Flannigan "is considered to be a competent attorney, but there are concerns over his lack of recent and complex trial [experience] and the depth of his more recent legal experience."
It had the same objections to Mahoney and O'Donnell.
Daniel Duffy was deemed not qualified or not recommended by two associations, but was unopposed to fill the Grussel vacancy.
"Judge Duffy presents several issues," the Chicago Council of Lawyers said. "Prior to becoming a judge, many attorneys were critical of Judge Duffy, noting incivility in their dealings with him. While some attorneys praised his litigation skills, the council on balance found him not qualified in an earlier evaluation. Since becoming a judge, many lawyers have praised his knowledge and court management skills. But the council is also concerned that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently found that Judge Duffy as a personal litigant had brought an appeal that the court believed was frivolous, and levied sanctions."
Among judges to be retained or not, the ratings were better, with only two being rejected by more than one of the associations.
Judge Jeanne R. Cleveland Bernstein got "no" votes from the Black Women Lawyers Association of Greater Chicago and the Cook County Bar Association.
Judge Daniel Lynch was rejected by the Chicago Council of Lawyers and the Illinois State Bar Association, which determined that "Judge Lynch is generally considered to have excellent legal knowledge and [is] even-keeled, although there were isolated reports of temperament issues. Since last being retained, Judge Lynch has been involved in several cases which have called into question his judicial judgment, including a case within the last year where the Illinois Supreme Court ordered his removal and reassignment of that case to another judge."
The Chicago Council of Lawyers added, "Judge Lynch on several occasions has reached beyond his immediate role as judge in a particular matter to engage in legal acts that seem to be outside his normal course of deciding a case before him. These matters include seeking or having sought to have the attorneys prosecuted for fraud or obstruction. In another matter, the judge unsuccessfully sought to have the Cook County state’s attorney prosecute one of the parties before him. These unorthodox uses of judicial discretion, including criminal contempt charges, are troubling to the council."
Whether or not these judges get elected or retained, the system's not likely to change.
"David Orr is right that, all things considered, merit appointment of judges by the governor with advise and consent approval by the state Senate would work best," Crawford said. "But there is no way that is ever going to happen in a state as political as Illinois.
"The two parties value the election of judges because it is the only real source of patronage left in a pay-to-play system that was weakened by the federal court ban on political hiring and firing.
"When you have judges who owe their posts to the political parties, there is always a chance that fairness in the judicial process will be compromised."
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