Cook County judicial voters reject old habits, disfavor poorly rated candidates

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Several long-standing traditions seemed upended by Cook County voters in the judicial primaries last week:

Negative publicity or ratings mattered. Running as a sitting judge did not. Past service as a prosecutor was less powerful than years past.

And while gender and ethnicity still mattered—with women attorneys holding an edge—the power of Irish names seemed diminished, while Latino attorneys ran strongly.

Those were among the patterns identified in an Injustice Watch analysis of the voting results.

“I am impressed with the electorate,” Sean Tenner, a political consultant with expertise in judicial campaigns, said of Cook County voters’ choices in 2018. “Not only do we have a very robust turnout for a non-presidential year,” he added, “but in a lot of cases, the candidate with the better bar ratings this year won even if other typical factors like ethnicity and gender were not in that candidate’s favor.”

All 12 candidates running in a contested primary who had been the subject of critical news reports in recent weeks were defeated.

Of the 19 candidates in contested races who received negative ratings from all three of the major bar associations (the Illinois State Bar Association, the Chicago Bar Association, and the Chicago Council of Lawyers), only one, Beatriz Frausto-Sandoval, won. Frausto-Sandoval, who won the 14th subcircuit primary contest, ran on a slate with Cook County Commissioner and congressional candidate Jesús “Chuy” García. The bar associations cited her lack of experience in the state courts in rating her negatively; her practice is mostly focused in federal immigration court.

Voters were choosing candidates to fill 10 vacant countywide seats and 29 seats from the subcircuits into which Cook County is divided. No Republicans filed to run for any of the countywide seats; two of the seats had only one Democratic candidate running without opposition. That put much of the focus on the contests for eight countywide seats, which attracted 24 candidates.

More than one in every six voters who cast ballots in the Democratic gubernatorial race failed to vote in any of the contested countywide primaries. That number is relatively consistent with past non-presidential elections; in presidential election years, a greater percentage of voters tend to skip the judicial races.

Malcolm Rich, executive director of the Chicago Council of Lawyers, pointed to increased judicial voter education this year as a potential reason that less-qualified candidates did not make it past this year’s primaries. Rich highlighted the Council’s work with Chicago Votes and BallotReady, as well as Injustice Watch’s reporting. “More than 100,000 people saw the bulk of the judicial evaluations,” he said. “With this approach that we took this time, we started to get the message out about how important it is to vote for judges at all.”

Voters have historically entered the polls with little information about the long list of judicial candidates beyond yard signs or sample ballots passed out by political parties. That left many voters to choose names based on factors including gender and ethnicity, which in Cook County historically meant choosing female, Irish-sounding names.

This year, however, well-qualified candidates sometimes won even when up against candidates with names that, in past elections, might have provided a stronger edge.

In the 5th subcircuit, Robert Harris, an appointed Cook County circuit judge with positive ratings from all three major bar associations and a highly qualified rating from the Chicago Bar Association, beat his negatively rated opponents, including one woman, by a wide margin. In the 6th, Kent Delgado, who has been serving by appointment as a Cook County circuit judge and was the only candidate to receive highly qualified ratings from all three bar associations, handily bested David Herrera and Sean Patrick Kelly. Herrera had received mixed ratings from the bar associations, following an Injustice Watch report of concerns about his temperament and attitude toward women; Kelly held an easily-identifiable Irish name, but had been negatively rated by the bar associations.

If voters were better informed this year, however, that did not help sitting judges get elected. This year, 31 primary candidates had been temporarily appointed to the bench by the Illinois Supreme Court. One seat pitted two appointed judges against each other, so one was certain to lose. And one appointed judge ran unopposed, so he was certain to win. But of the 29 others, 15 were defeated by attorneys running against them. In 2016, by contrast, of 23 judges running, 17 won their primaries, including seven who ran unopposed.

“It’s a problem,” Rich said of these results, “because the Illinois Supreme Court has been stepping up to try to find good people to fill vacancies, and that appointment process is being stymied by the electoral process.”

David Melton, senior advisor to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said that some judicial insiders told him they were surprised by how many appointed judges lost, but he was not, nor were other experts. Former research analyst Albert J. Klumpp, who studies Cook County judicial elections, said in an email, “I’d be shocked if even two percent of the electorate knew which candidates are sitting judges and which aren’t,” and suggested that the voters who are informed are more likely to be influenced by bar association ratings.

Tenner said being a sitting judge usually helps his clients make connections with local political leaders and gain party endorsements, but that it is up to the candidates to educate voters about their judicial experience.

Anthony Swanagan, an appointed judge who lost his 15th subcircuit race, told Injustice Watch that he does not know why he and his colleagues on the bench did not fare better. “The punch line for me is I’m still confident that I’m a good judge, and I think the lawyers and litigants who are in front of me would say the same thing, so I still have faith in what I’m doing,” he said. “I imagine most of my similarly situated colleagues would say the same thing.”

As for the impact of gender, according to Injustice Watch’s analysis, in races where women ran against men, a woman won two-thirds of the time. Klumpp said while the influence of gender can vary in judicial contests, it was a “major influence this time” that jumped out at him from the results.

Klumpp said he also noticed a new trend of success for Latino candidates. “I’ve been waiting for a while now to see a significant pro-Hispanic vote emerge in the judicial contests and it looks like 2018 was the year that it finally emerged,” he wrote.

One Mexican-American candidate who did especially well was Frausto-Sandoval, who faced Marina Ammendola in the subcircuit that includes parts of the heavily Latino Southwest Side of Chicago. This was the first contested election since 1994 in an area traditionally dominated by machine politics. While Ammendola is currently appointed to the bench and has ties to the politically powerful Burke family, Frausto-Sandoval won by 16 percent.

In addition to Garcia’s backing, she also had been endorsed by the grassroots organization Reclaim Chicago.

The primary results reflect a new rise in successful candidates coming from a background in the public defender’s office. The state’s attorney’s office has been a classic route to the bench, but last week as many current or former public defenders as prosecutors won their primaries, 15 each. Current or former public defenders won seats in 14 of the 23 contested races they ran in, and one won an uncontested race. In 2016, only six current or former public defenders ran in contested races, and only one of them won.

Among current or former state’s attorneys, of the 30 who ran in 22 contested races, 12 survived; three others ran without opposition.

Melton, who said there has long been a skew towards more prosecutors running and winning than public defenders, described the shift as “probably a good thing, because of the diversity it brings to the bench in terms of viewpoints.”

Other trends were less clear, however. Injustice Watch found that half of candidates endorsed by their party won, and just over half of candidates endorsed by the Chicago chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police did. Party endorsement proved more aligned with success in contested countywide races, where six out of eight candidates endorsed by the Democratic Party won.

Melton said that greater availability of and familiarity with the internet seems to have begun to move the judicial races past “the old days of having to rely on party endorsements or less meaningful things” and given the bar ratings greater impact. “I think that actually this is somewhat encouraging in contested races,” he said.

Warren Wolfson, a retired judge who spent time on both the appellate court and the Cook County circuit court and is now a law professor at DePaul, did not express even that cautious optimism, however. Though most candidates consistently found unqualified lost, “that doesn’t mean the others are qualified,” he said. “Unless someone’s been sitting as a judge, you don’t really know how they’re going to behave.”