If history is a guide, Cook County voters will approve in November seven judges taking the bench even though one leading bar association group has concluded they do not belong there.
Three are sitting judges whose performance on the bench earned them “not qualified” ratings by the Chicago Council of Lawyers as they ask voters to retain them.
The Council noted that twice in recent years the appellate court not only reversed Circuit Judge Nicholas R. Ford, the court ordered a different judge to retry the case after questioning Ford’s impartiality. The Council negatively rated Circuit Judge Bonita Coleman, who sits in domestic relations, noting a number of lawyers who practiced before her questioned both her knowledge of the law and whether she favored men over women. And in negatively rating Circuit Judge Daniel J. Lynch, the Council noted cases in which Lynch sought either prosecution or imprisonment on contempt charges for attorneys and litigants who appear before him.
Four others are candidates for vacant judicial seats who received “not recommended” ratings from the Council but are running without opposition in partisan contests. One is Rhonda Crawford, who was fired from her position as a law clerk in the Circuit Courts after she put on judicial robes and sat on the bench for three cases in the Markham courthouse. Crawford, like Matthew Link and D. Renee Jackson, were “not recommended” after they failed to take part in the Council’s evaluation process.
The fourth, Daniel Patrick Duffy, has already been sitting since the state Supreme Court appointed him in 2014 to fill the vacancy until after voters fill the seat in November. But in negatively recommending him, the council cited both complaints that he was not civil to opposing lawyers before joining the bench, and that he filed a personal lawsuit that the U.S. Court of Appeals found frivolous.
But there is little reason to think such ratings matter. In 2010, County Clerk David Orr complained of the flaws that made pointless the retention elections, which require judges to win approval from 60 percent of the voters. Though Circuit Court judges stand for retention every six years, Orr noted, none of the more than 250 Cook County circuit judges had lost a retention race since 1990. In the years since, that remains true; voters returned Cynthia Brim to the bench in 2012 despite her arrest on assault charges following a well-publicized incident in which she shoved a deputy sheriff outside of the Daley Center.
In the partisan races for open seats, judges need a majority of favorable votes; but each of the candidates whom the Council refused to recommend won races in the Democratic primary, and face no opponent in November.
David Melton, senior advisor at the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said it is unreasonable to expect the public to know and research the 50 or 60 judges on the ballot every two years before they vote.
The decision is further complicated by the fact that the Council of Lawyers is one of several bar groups to rate judges, and most groups this year did not come out against any of the 57 judges seeking to retain their seats. The Council is traditionally harsher in its reviews, putting candidates through a process that involves a review of their cases, surveys of attorneys who have appeared before them, as well as a personal interview.
Melton said the small number of judges found unfit for the bench by both the CCL and the other bar groups could mean there has been an improvement in the judiciary. But, he said, that is likely the “glass half-full” view.
“I’m afraid that the declining number of unfavorable ratings may reflect a lowering of the standard of what is an acceptable behavior of a judge,” said Melton, who has been involved in the judicial evaluation process in previous years but was not a part of the evaluations this election season.
Ten other bar associations, many representing specific segments of lawyers including Puerto Rican lawyers, Black women lawyers, lesbian and gay lawyers and Greek lawyers, join the Council in the questionnaire and evaluation. The other 10 groups all found Coleman and Ford qualified. The Illinois State Bar Association was the only one to join the Council in negatively recommending Lynch, writing, “Judge Lynch is generally considered to have excellent legal knowledge and 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.”
Lynch was not available for comment.
The Chicago Bar Association, which conducts its own separate evaluation process, found all of the 57 judges seeking retention to be “qualified.” The bar wrote that Lynch, who first was elected in 1998 and assigned to the Law Division since 2009, is “diligent and well regarded for his knowledge of the law, judicial ability, and dedication to the justice system.” Ford, the bar association wrote, is “well regarded for his knowledge of criminal law, judicial experience, and ability to effectively manage a high volume court.”
Ford did not respond to requests for comment.
And the Chicago Bar Association wrote that “Judge Coleman is thoughtful, patient, and thorough in explaining the judicial process to pro se litigants. Judge Coleman is well regarded for her legal knowledge, judicial experience, and excellent demeanor.”
Coleman did not respond to requests for comment.
The 10 bar groups that join the Council in the group interviews all also negatively rated Crawford, Link, and Jackson for declining to take part in the evaluation process. The Hispanic lawyers joined the Council in finding Duffy not qualified, while the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois issued a “not recommended” rating against him.
But the Chicago Bar Association, as well as the other smaller bar groups, found Duffy qualified, writing that he stated that he had learned from the personal lawsuit that the federal appeals court found frivolous.