No African American candidates chosen as Cook County judges add 16 to bench

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Update (6/11/18): James A. Wright, an African-American man, was elected to the 17th associate judge vacancy after a runoff election that concluded on June 6. 

As they chose from among 34 finalists to fill positions as associate judges, the Cook County circuit judges failed to cast enough ballots for any of the 10 African-American candidates to win a seat outright.

Instead, the judges elected to the associate judge positions three Hispanic lawyers, two members of the Asian-American legal community, two Jewish lawyers, and several lawyers of other ethnicities. But no African-American lawyers made it to the bench.

Dartesia A. Pitts, president of the Cook County Bar Association, the country’s oldest association of African-American lawyers, called the result “shattering” for her members. “People are accomplished, they’ve worked so hard to get where they are,” she said. “Something like this can be disheartening to the practitioner, especially if you’re an African-American practitioner, you’re trying to figure out, why not us? Why are we not worthy?”

Other legal experts also shook their heads over the results, especially because a diverse bench is a matter that the circuit judges themselves, including Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans, agree is of critical importance. Evans, who is African-American, issued a statement Wednesday afternoon stating that he understands the concerns and will continue to push for qualified judges representing the city’s diversity. “The concept of justice requires it,” Evans said in his statement.

The county’s circuit judges were to choose 17 associate judges from a list of 34 finalists, screened from a committee that included Evans and the presiding judges of the various divisions that make up the county court. When the results were announced this week, 16 winners were named; the 17th seat ended in a tie between two African-American men, so one of them will ultimately be seated after a runoff. But they were the two highest vote-winners among the 10 black finalists.

Associate judges earn slightly less money than circuit judges and may not preside over felony criminal cases without specific Supreme Court approval, but otherwise have the same responsibilities.

The issue of diversity on the bench has long been an issue; countywide elections historically favored candidates with Irish-sounding names and, more recently, women; and often candidates would win election because of political connections rather than qualifications. The Illinois legislature has created a hybrid model for selecting judges: some are elected countywide; some are chosen as associate judges by the circuit judges; and since 1993, some are chosen from among 15 subcircuits across Cook County, to try to ensure diversity on the bench.

Though the bench is increasingly diverse, a 2013 report by the Chicago Appleseed Fund For Justice concluded that the judiciary still failed to reflect the racial makeup of the county as a whole. The issue of diversity in the criminal justice system has taken on heightened significance as outside investigations have noted widespread distrust of the system within the minority community.

This year the screening committee headed by Evans agreed on the 34 finalists after interviewing 248 applicants. The finalists included 17 women and 17 men, 10 African-Americans, three Hispanics, two Jewish lawyers and two Asian-Americans.

“We will continue to bring the best and brightest legal minds to the bench,” Evans said. “We will continue to ensure that the names on the ballots reflect diversity of race, religion, gender and sexual orientation.”

Erica Kirkwood, president of the Black Women Lawyers Association of Greater Chicago, said that Evans’s screening committee had made “tremendous strides in supporting diversity and inclusion.” But she called “disheartening and disappointing” the lack of any black women among the 17 who will be seated.

“To know that black women lawyers did not receive enough votes to garner one out of 17 spots may suggest to the community that black women lawyers are not an intricate thread in the fabric of our justice system,” Kirkwood said in a statement.