Breaking tradition, Preckwinkle tells voters to dump a Cook County judge

Dump Judge Coghlan

Vote NO on Judge Coghlan – Punch #232

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Posted by Cook County Democratic Party on Tuesday, October 30, 2018

In a groundbreaking video posted online Tuesday by the Cook County Democratic Party, Toni Preckwinkle, the party’s chairwoman, urges voters to stop Circuit Judge Matthew Coghlan in his quest to win another six-year term in the November election.

The video is a dramatic break from past years, when the local Democratic party automatically supported every judge seeking retention.

The party announced in September that it would not be supporting Coghlan. The video goes one step further; it shows the Democrats actively campaigning for his defeat.

Preckwinkle states in the video, “This year, the party is holding judges more accountable. That is why we will not be endorsing Judge Matthew Coghlan for retention.”

No judge has lost a Cook County retention race since 1990.

Coghlan is one of 59 circuit court judges seeking retention, which requires judges  to capture more than 60 percent of support from voters to win another term.

A confluence of events has raised concern among the retention judges that this year the results may break from tradition.

Initial concerns focused on the retention judge who had at first sought to remain on the retention ballot even after she was convicted in U.S. District Court in February of mortgage fraud; the judge, Jessica O’Brien, is no longer seeking her seat. The prospect of running with a judge convicted of a felony alarmed other retention judges.

Meanwhile, a group of community organizations and activists, inspired by their success in unseating former Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, began working to encourage younger voters to take part in the judicial races, which typically attract far fewer voters than the candidates at the top of the ticket.

Those groups, together with a political action committee established by progressive lawyers, began organizing for a “no” vote on Coghlan, leading up to the party decision last month to recommend he not be retained. The party’s executive director, Jacob Kaplan, said that followed a “rigorous review.”

Coghlan is currently being sued by two men whom he prosecuted and convicted of murder  in 1993, before he became a judge. The convictions were overturned 23 years later and the men were exonerated. The men contend in their lawsuits in U.S. District Court that Coghlan worked with now-disgraced former Chicago police detective Reynaldo Guevara to build a false case against them.

Injustice Watch reported on several other issues marring Coghlan’s record: In one case, after the Illinois Appellate Court ruled Coghlan had wrongly denied a prisoner a hearing on his innocence claim and sent the case back to Coghlan, the judge denied a hearing a second time, earning critical comments from the appellate judges. He also has harshly sentenced black defendants, including in cases of possession of marijuana.

Preckwinkle, who is also president of the Cook County Board and an announced candidate for Chicago mayor in the 2019 election, cites Coghlan’s conduct in that 1993 case in the video ad.

A spokesperson for the Committee for Retention of Judges said that Coghlan declined to comment on the ad.

The party’s decision to oppose Coghlan created an awkward situation, since the retention judges themselves had agreed to support each other for retention. The Committee for Retention of Judges in Cook County, which fundraises on behalf of retention judges, routinely gives money to the Cook County Democratic Party, which in the past has supported all judges. Coghlan, like other retention candidates, donated to the committee.

After the Democratic Party’s decision to urge voters to dump Coghlan, the judges’ committee still decided to contribute $40,000 this month to the Democratic Party to support the candidates through sample ballots and other advertising.

Coghlan is not the only judge whose past rulings have come under extra scrutiny this year. Circuit Judge Maura Slattery Boyle, Injustice Watch reported, has been reversed far more often the past six years than any other judges in criminal court, and has regularly imposed harsher sentences than her colleagues. In three cases her decision to deny claims by prisoners that they were innocent were later reversed and, after new judges took over the cases, the prisoners were exonerated.

The Chicago Council of Lawyers and the Chicago Tribune recommended against retaining both Boyle and Coghlan. In contrast, those are the only two retention judges recommended for retention by the Fraternal Order of Police in its online endorsements.