In danger: 28-year streak of voters saying ‘okay’ to every Cook County judge

Traditionally Cook County Circuit Court judges easily win retention every six years, with voters paying little attention to those races at the bottom of their ballots. This year, however, a confluence of events may change all that.

A version of this article was published by the Chicago Sun-Times.

No Cook County judge has been voted out of office in 28 years. Yet, a series of uncommon occurrences has created concern among the 61 judges seeking retention that the pattern may be broken this November.

One retention judge remains on the ballot as she awaits sentencing after being convicted of mortgage fraud; she insists that she is not abandoning her seat since she still is fighting her conviction. While the Democratic party has routinely supported all retention candidates in the past, increasing controversy surrounding judges has led the party to reconsider that unconditional support.

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Cook County Circuit Judge Matthew Coghlan

Separately, some progressive lawyers and activists have begun a campaign to target one particular judge—Matthew Coghlan—citing his judicial acts as well as a case dating to his work as a prosecutor on a murder case built by now-disgraced Chicago Police Officer Reynaldo Guevara.

And while retention races have traditionally received minimal attention from voters, making any effort to remove a judge unlikely, this year a variety of groups have begun efforts to ensure that voters are better informed about the judicial elections and their implications.

Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, who separately works on behalf of the Chicago Bar Association, noted all of this comes at a time when voters are unusually discontented. Voters, he said, are unhappy about events both nationally and statewide. And that could impact how they respond in the voting booth.

Every six years, the Cook County circuit judges must stand for retention, required to win 60 percent approval from voters who decide on their fate. Traditionally, many voters who enter the voting booth do not bother to cast ballots in judicial races at all; and those that do cast ballots have tended to follow the recommendations of the Democratic party to vote “yes on all.”

That message has been conveyed through handouts to voters as they arrive at polling places, as well as on automated telephone messages from Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, the Democratic party county chair.

Judge Jessica A. O’Brien

Jacob Kaplan, executive director of the party, says Jessica Arong O’Brien is a timely example of the need for the party to be more critical in their support of retention candidates. She was convicted by a jury in U.S. District Court in February of defrauding a lawyer and a real estate agent when she purchased two South Side properties a decade ago, years before her 2012 election to the bench.

In June the state Judicial Inquiry Board recommended she be removed from office, a recommendation that remains pending before the Courts Commission, the agency empowered to discipline judges for violating the Judicial Code of Conduct. If the Commission removes O’Brien, her name still could be stricken from the ballot.

County elections officials said the ballots will be printed on September 27, so her name would remain on the ballot if the Courts Commission acts after that date to remove her from office.

Judges have run in the past as a united front. The Committee for Retention of Judges in Cook County in recent times has raised more than $100,000 each election cycle, largely from large law firms, to ensure that sitting judges are retained. That money is then spent on advertising, on unions, and to the two political parties to push the judges’ retention.

That support matters. “The money that filters down from political parties in judicial election races basically ensures the worst judges don’t get knocked off the ballot,” said David Melton of Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

Take the case of Cynthia Brim, whom voters retained on the bench even after she had been arrested on a misdemeanor charge of assaulting an officer based on a confrontation in the lobby of the Daley Center courthouse. Brim also had an episode in court, stopping the proceedings for a lengthy monologue about race and justice.

She pleaded guilty by reason of insanity, but nevertheless enjoyed the support of the Democratic party, both in its campaign literature and in the automated telephone support on behalf of all judicial retention candidates.

This year, the party intends to vet candidates before providing them support, said Eamon Kelly, chairperson of the Cook County Democratic Party’s Judicial Retention Committee. Kelly cautioned it still could turn out that the party endorses each of the candidates; “I want to be clear. We have a process that we’ve set up and it’s possible that the process could end in us saying that everybody should be retained,” Kelly said.

Meanwhile a group of progressive organizations have banded together to try to prevent the judicial candidates they see as problematic from retaining their seats. Attorney Brendan Shiller has created a Judicial Accountability Political Action Committee, and has decided to focus its attention on one retention candidate, Matthew Coghlan, who is currently being sued by two exonerated men who contended that Coghlan, before he took the bench, worked with a corrupt detective to cause their wrongful murder conviction.

Shiller and other groups hope that by focusing on one candidate this time, the organizations may break the longstanding trend of judges being retained no matter their record.

Organizations such as Chicago Votes and the People’s Lobby also have begun voter education campaigns, including community meetings, hoping to increase voters’ knowledge of the candidates and the importance of the vote.

All of which leaves uncertainty about how it will impact the retention races. “I think we’re going to see a significant percentage increase in turn out,” said County Commissioner Suffredin. “And there are going to be people who are mad, and that’s why they’re turning out.”