Not all sub-circuit judges are Oliver Wendell Holmes

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Richard Cooke may not have longstanding ties to the 6th Cook County judicial sub-circuit on Chicago’s North Side, but no matter. As the Sun-Times noted, after spending $67,000 to local politicians, he is running unopposed to fill a vacancy in his newly-adopted home.

Farther south, Matthew Link is running unopposed for a seat in the 14th Cook County judicial sub-circuit. Though he was not recommended by various bar associations after ducking their evaluation process, Link has been serving for years as an attorney to the City Council committee chaired by powerful alderman Edward Burke.

While two candidates with mixed ratings are battling for a vacancy in the 5th sub-circuit, which hugs Lake Michigan on the South Side, four different candidates with positive ratings are vying for single seats in both the 10th and 12th sub-circuits.

All of which raises again the question, as voters head to the polls today, if this is any way to pick judges.

The system was created 25 years ago by the Illinois legislature, as an effort to encourage a more diverse bench in Cook County, where white, male, Irish candidates had historically won Democratic party backing and dominated the bench. At the urging of a coalition of women, minorities and Republicans, the state legislature voted to carve out 15 different sub-circuits in the county.

Some circuit judges would continue to be elected countywide; but an even greater number, under the new plan, would be elected from the sub-circuits. There’s no difference in what the sub-circuit judges do, once elected, compared to judges elected countywide; they are expected to apply the law in exactly the same way, and may be assigned anywhere. The only difference would be that they are chosen not by all of the people they represent, but only by people from that geographic sub-circuit.

The bench these days is definitely more diverse, with more women and minorities, than it was two decades ago. It is unclear how much of that can be attributed to the creation of sub-circuits. Court systems nationwide have a higher percentage of women and minorities as law schools produce more diverse classes, and long-overdue sensitivity to the value of diversity has developed.

The sub-circuit system, however, is considered a disaster in other ways. As Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin once put it, “I think it probably has not been the best way to improve the quality of our judiciary.”

Suffredin, who as Chicago Bar Association lobbyist has been involved in legislation involving judicial elections, noted “a significant percentage” of judges elected from sub-circuits have had problems than judges elected countywide.

Several have received criticism for their performance on the bench. Others have run into trouble for flouting the law by living outside the sub-circuits from which they win election.

Judge Gloria Chevere was first elected from the 6th judicial sub-circuit in 2006, despite local bar associations declining to recommend her after she refused to take part in their evaluations. Chevere and her husband owned a home outside the 6th sub-circuit for years, and she said she had moved into a cousin’s home when she ran for office.

In 2010 Chevere was reassigned into a courtroom on the West Side, after Fox News identified her as among a group of judges who were leaving their jobs early. She was removed from that courtroom in 2014, and assigned to handle paperwork in the Daley Center, after a Medill Watchdog-WGN Investigates report that she had sent more than two dozen young men to jail without a hearing because they were wearing their pants too low in her courtroom.

Beatriz Santiago, elected to another 6th judicial sub-circuit vacancy in 2012, has been formally charged with misconduct by the state Judicial Inquiry Board, a rare action based on questions of her residence. Santiago contended that she lived at her parents’ home inside the sub-circuit, not in the house she owned outside the sub-circuit. But in a 2013 mortgage refinance, she listed her house as her primary residence.

While the charges are pending, Santiago has been removed from the courtroom and has spent the past year performing marriages in the basement of the county building.

Vanessa Hopkins was first elected in 1996 from the 1st judicial sub-circuit, despite the bar associations declining to recommend her after she too refused to take part in their evaluations. As the Chicago Tribune wrote after her election, “Vanessa A. Hopkins is 39 years old and has been licensed to practice law in Illinois for less than two years. Beyond that, her experience as a lawyer is something of a mystery. Bar groups do not know what kind of law she practices, where she practices or whether she practices it well.

“But they do know one thing: Hopkins was elected to be a judge Tuesday. Hopkins is what has become known as a ‘stealth candidate’ — lawyers who run for judge without submitting their qualifications to key bar groups for evaluation.”

Less than three years after winning election, Hopkins had bought a condominium outside her sub-circuit,  and signed a mortgage agreeing the condominium would be her primary residence.    In 2012, the Sun-Times reported Hopkins had more than 200 sick days the previous year.

She retired from the bench in 2014, when she was due to stand for retention.

Judges are initially elected by partisan elections, and then voters approve their retaining their seats every six years in non-partisan countywide elections. While judges are removed if fewer than 60 percent of voters countywide choose not to retain them, that has proven an easy standard: No Cook County judge has been removed by voters since 1990.

In the past two decades, two Cook County Circuit judges were removed from office for violating the judicial canons. Both had joined the bench after they were elected from sub-circuits.

One was Francis X. Golniewicz III, who was removed from the bench after the Illinois Courts Commission determined that Golniewicz had lied about where he lived: He was elected in 1993 from the 10th sub-circuit, but that was his parents’ home; Golniewicz lived 13 miles away in suburban Riverside, the commission found.

The other was Cynthia Brim, who was first elected in 1994 from the first sub-circuit, but was removed from her seat in 2014 based on a finding by the Illinois Courts Commission that she was not mentally fit for the job. That finding came after a series of incidents involving Brim at the courthouse, including a 2012 incident in which she was criminally charged with assaulting a deputy sheriff.

Following that incident, Brim was suspended with pay from the bench while the charges were pending. In November, 2012, despite her troubles, voters chose to retain Brim for another six years. Soon thereafter, Brim would be declared not guilty by reason of insanity, after which the formal complaint was filed by the Judicial Inquiry Board that led to her removal.

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