The Cook County Democratic Party took the rare step on Friday of refusing to recommend Cook County Circuit Judge Matthew Coghlan for retention. The vote adds to the pressure the embattled jurist faces from community groups who have banded together to oppose his effort to remain on the bench.
The decision by Cook County Democrats not to support Coghlan, a former assistant state’s attorney who first was elected to the bench in 2000, represents a seismic shift in a long tradition of supporting all candidates for retention.
The party normally urges voters to retain all judges in sample ballots and in automated telephone calls to voters.
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In a county in which the Democratic Party controls countywide races, that support matters. No judge has been voted out of office in more than three decades. All circuit judges stand for retention every six years, subject to losing their seats if they fail to achieve 60 percent “yes” votes among the voters who cast ballots in their specific race.
But as community opposition to Coghlan has mounted, the party on Friday announced it would not be continuing its practice of blanket endorsements.
Voting not to endorse Coghlan “was a difficult but necessary decision to maintain the high integrity of the Party’s values and mission,” Democratic Party Executive Director Jacob Kaplan said in a statement, adding the decision came after a committee of the party reviewed Coghlan’s record. All other 59 judges on the retention ballot won support from the party, Kaplan said.
Coghlan failed to respond to requests for comment on Friday.
Coghlan is facing opposition from a series of community groups who have created “the Coalition to Dump Matt Coghlan” and have been raising money in the hopes of preventing his retention.
Coghlan is currently a defendant in a federal civil rights suit which contends that, when he was a prosecutor, he worked with disgraced former Chicago police detective Reynaldo Guevara to frame two men for a murder they did not commit. The two, Armando Serrano and Jose Montanez, spent 23 years in prison before they were exonerated in 2016.
Injustice Watch reported in June on the lawsuit, as well as issues in Coghlan’s record since he joined the bench. The Injustice Watch review found that Coghlan had a history of harsh sentences, including one-year sentences for several black defendants convicted of marijuana possession, while he has drawn criticism for lenient sentences in cases in which police officers were the defendants.
The coalition of progressive groups decided to focus on one judge, Coghlan, to oppose, in order to raise awareness about judicial retention races that often are overlooked by voters.
On Thursday, members of that coalition published a video online featuring Serrano and Montanez describing the hardship of their years in prison and pointing to Coghlan’s role in their convictions.
“We not only voted to end a decades old practice of universally supporting every judge for retention, but we also took steps to get rid of a racist judge,” said Paul Rosenfeld, Democratic Party committeeman for the 47th Ward, after the Friday decision. In addition, he said, “we put all judges on notice that they have to do their job fairly and with integrity, or watch out.”
Injustice Watch fellow Alecia Richards and intern Elena Sucharetza contributed reporting to this article.