Cook County judges’ committee funding Democratic effort to oust Coghlan

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This article is published in collaboration with the Chicago Sun-Times.

Embattled Cook County Circuit Judge Matthew Coghlan’s hopes of keeping his job have suffered another blow.

The committee that provides funding for circuit judges’ retention campaigns is turning over much of its money to the Cook County Democratic Party. And the party is campaigning to defeat Coghlan in November’s election, according to Jacob Kaplan, the party’s executive director.

Cook County’s circuit judges formed the Committee for Retention of Judges in Cook County years ago so they would not have to directly raise money when they face election to remain in office.

The move to shift the money was the result of a secret vote by the retention judges. They decided to fund the party’s efforts despite opposition to Coghlan, one of 59 Cook County judges who will be on the November ballot seeking new six-year terms.

For years, the Democratic Party has encouraged voters to support all Cook County judges who are up for retention, putting out automated calls and handing out sample ballots urging people to vote to keep them in office.

“We’ll still be supporting all the other retention judges,” Kaplan said.

Cook County circuit judges initially are elected in a partisan contest for six-year terms. After that, their names go back on the ballot every six years, and they have to get at least 60 percent “yes” votes to keep their jobs. No judge in Cook County has lost a retention race since 1990.

But this year several factors have threatened to upset the status quo. Community groups began working to increase voter awareness of the retention races, which many voters ignore. Also, some lawyers are supporting the Judicial Accountability Political Action Committee, which has targeted Coghlan, a former assistant state’s attorney who is a defendant in a federal civil rights lawsuit that accuses him, as a prosecutor, of helping frame two innocent men for murder 25 years ago.

In the face of the opposition, the judges sought to remain united.

Last month, Judge Moshe Jacobius, the well-regarded presiding judge of the chancery division, who is up for retention, said in an email last month to all Cook County retention candidates: “It is important to stay united and not let outside forces divide us. If we stay positive and united in our focus, we will have a stronger likelihood of being successful.”

Jacobius, who didn’t respond to requests for comment, wrote that a group from the committee was going to meet with Cook County Democratic Party officials to urge them to support every judge up for retention.

But days later, when the party voted to break with tradition and oppose keeping Coghlan in office, the other retention judges were left in a difficult position.

In the past, the committee has raised money from the judges’ own contributions and from fundraising efforts, then provided it to the two political parties to support all retention judges. That money has been distributed disproportionately to the Democratic Party, which dominates the judiciary in Cook County.

Coghlan, like almost all of the judges on next month’s ballot, donated to the committee, which promotes his candidacy on its website.

Mary Kay Dawson, a political consultant working on behalf of the committee, failed to respond to interview requests.

But an email Dawson sent to the retention judges suggests the committee is continuing to help Coghlan and other judges who have come under scrutiny and might be facing a tough fight this year, listing Coghlan, Judge Michael R. Clancy, Judge Maura Slattery Boyle, Judge Michael McHale “and any other judges.”

Dawson gave the judges a list of political events that she wrote were important to “have people at.