Resurrected: Five Cook County judicial election losers rebound quickly

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Cook County voters last week rejected Anthony Simpkins, Maryam Ahmad, Marc Martin, Thomas Cushing and Patrick Heneghan to sit as Cook County judges. Three days later, the five found new hope for winning seats on the bench despite their losses.

All five were among 26 finalists competing for 13 associate judgeships, to be chosen by a vote among Cook County’s 255 circuit court judges, Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans announced. Evans and the nine presiding judges of Cook County Circuit Court’s various divisions chose the finalists from among 283 candidates.

The five judicial hopefuls all had been rated qualified by the bar groups that conduct extensive evaluations before the election, and all five had been endorsed by the Chicago Tribune. Their inclusion among the finalists the same week that voters rejected them, however, raises anew questions of the process of having judges chosen by voters.

When asked about five recently defeated candidates being chosen as finalists for associate judge seats, a court spokesman answered by describing the process, saying the committee reached its decision unanimously after conducting interviews and consulting the bar association ratings.

Associate judges have much the same responsibilities as Circuit Judges, but serve four year terms, not six; and are barred from presiding over felony criminal cases without special state Supreme Court approval. The salaries of associate judges were set by the legislature in 2014  at $177,667 a year, more than $9,000 less than Circuit Judges.

David Melton, senior advisor at the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said the fact that five candidates ended up back on the list of finalists raised more questions about the soundness of the electoral process than of the way associate judges are chosen. “The people who are voting on the associate judge process at least are paying some attention to the people’s qualifications,” he said, compared to the way the general public votes.

Choosing judges by popular election has been a subject of longstanding criticism in Illinois and across the country. Cook County voters historically went to the polls knowing little about the candidates, and making choices based on the ethnic sound or gender of a candidate’s name; whether they were supported by ward organizations; and whether they had lawn signs that caught voters’ attention.

In the election last week voters rejected Simpkins, who already was serving through a temporary Supreme Court appointment, in favor of Rhonda Crawford, who received “not recommended” ratings from the Chicago Bar Association, the Chicago Council of Lawyers and the Illinois State Bar Association after she failed to participate in the judicial evaluation process.

Two other well-regarded candidates who were defeated by voters last week, Ahmad and  Martin, lost to opponents who had received mixed ratings from the three bar groups that conduct the most extensive evaluations of candidates.

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