Cook County judicial candidate pulls an Irish name switcheroo

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Nearly eight years after an unsuccessful judicial bid in Will County as a Republican, attorney Phillip Spiwak is trying again to win a seat on the bench – this time in Cook County, with a new party and new name. Voters: meet Shannon P. O’Malley, Democrat.

O’Malley (nee Spiwak), a Hoffman Estates defense attorney, is part of a long line of judicial candidates hoping to cash in on the real and perceived electoral luck of the Irish.

Beginning on February 21, Cook County voters will start heading to the polls to winnow down the field of 110 primary judicial candidates vying to fill 39 vacancies on the bench. For the majority of races in which there is no partisan contest, the primary elections serve as the final word in who will become a judge in Cook County. This article is part of Injustice Watch‘s continuing coverage prior to the March elections.

In past races, candidates with Irish or female-sounding names vying for seats on the bench have seen an electoral advantage in the primary races. O’Malley, who notified the Illinois courts of the name change in September 2012, appears to be looking for an edge in both areas. In response to multiple attempts to reach him, O’Malley texted Injustice Watch that he had no comment.

Having a female or Irish sounding name, or both, has given such an upper hand to some candidates in past primary elections that it can actually outweigh not being chosen as a favored candidate by the political party, according to a study by former research analyst Albert Klumpp, who has studied Cook County judicial elections.

In a contested primary election, Klumpp said, a name like O’Malley could perform very well. However, if there were other female or Irish names on the ballot, the advantage would be lessened, he said. “Depending upon the situation, depending on who turns out to vote, you can get a huge advantage,” Klumpp said.

Looking for an Irish edge is nothing new. A 1990 story in The New York Times, headlined: Illinois Journal; Where an Irish Name Wins Everyone’s Vote began: “This is the County of Cook, not Cork. And contrary to rumor, the election ballots in Illinois next month will not be printed in Gaelic.”

Indeed, former Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney L. Michael Getty changed his name to Michael Brennan Getty for his successful 1988 judicial run, and in 2005 attorney Frederick S. Rhine began his bid for the bench under the name Patrick Michael O’Brien. According to the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission website, O’Brien has now changed his name back to Rhine.

The practice became too common for some officials. After Rhine’s name switch, then-state Representative John A. Fritchey, D-Chicago, proposed a bill that would require a candidate who changed his or her name during the previous three years to have the previous name also listed on the ballot. The bill, which excluded the requirement if a candidate’s name was changed through marriage or divorce, became law in January 2007. Getty did not respond to requests for comment, and Rhine was not available for comment.

“It really was about trying to improve and protect the integrity of the judicial system,” Fritchey said. “Not just the election system, the judicial system.”

Fritchey said he hopes the law, which amended the Illinois election code, makes candidates think twice about changing their identities in the hopes of grabbing an electoral edge.

“It’s bad enough that the reality is that a large percentage of our judges are elected based on gender or ethnicity. These are people that are making critical decisions for individuals, businesses and organizations alike,” said Fritchey, now a Cook County Commissioner. “You often have people with a ballot name that is far better than their qualifications.”

State Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, who also sponsored the name-change bill, said there can be legitimate reasons for attorneys and candidates to make changes to their names, and those should be respected. However, Harmon said, “I have and would continue to question the character and credibility of anyone who changes their name simply to advance their electoral prospects.”

Harmon said voters and the bar associations should focus on the other qualifications in deciding who should become a judge.

Shannon O'Malley

A screenshot from Shannon P. O’Malley’s professional website.

The 13th judicial subcircuit vacancy, left when Judge Jeffrey Lawrence resigned, includes parts of suburban Cook County cities Schaumburg, Palatine, Wheeling, Hanover and Barrington. In vying for that seat, O’Malley could face one of two Republican rivals in the general election, Michael Gerber or Daniel Patrick Fitzgerald.

Gerber was appointed in December 2016 by the Illinois Supreme Court to fill the subcircuit vacancy on a temporary basis, pending the election.  Injustice Watch has written recently about two cases that raise questions about the courtroom conduct of Gerber, a former longtime Cook County State’s Attorney.

In one, a Cook County Circuit judge overturned a double murder and arson conviction in October, ruling that Gerber and a colleague had made false statements to a jury that led to a wrongful conviction. In the other, a defendant in a pending appeal contends he was wrongly convicted of murder in 2013 as a result of “egregious” conduct by Gerber.

In the meantime, Klumpp has bad news for O’Malley, who according to his professional website, represents criminal defendants and takes bankruptcy cases. If he’s looking for extra votes based on his new name, Klumpp said he likely won’t see them.

O’Malley has no rivals in the primary election, where having an Irish female-sounding name would normally provide a boost, Klumpp said.  But O’Malley also changed parties – from Republican to Democrat. And the 13th subcircuit, which O’Malley is running in, has not elected a Democrat for judge since its creation in 1992, according to Klumpp’s research. When it comes to the general election where O’Malley will face opponents, most voters will cast ballots on party lines, Klumpp said.

“If you’re going to do something as extreme as changing your entire name, presumably you expect a big electoral payoff,” Klumpp said. “He’s not going to get a big payoff.”