A record: Cook County Chief Judge Evans wins unprecedented seventh term

Cook County Circuit Judge Timothy Evans on Thursday won his colleagues’ backing on Thursday for an unprecedented seventh term as the chief judge of the court system.

A former alderman, Evans faced what appeared a strong effort to depose him by Circuit Judge Lorna Propes, whose campaign sought to tap into the dismay felt by members of the bench at the judicial retention races last year when a Cook County judge was defeated at the polls.

But however unhappy judges were with the defeat of Judge Matthew Coghlan last year, they chose Evans over Propes by a decisive vote of 143-102.

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“I look forward to working with our colleagues for another three years,” Evans said after the vote, emphasizing his intention to accomplish  further court reforms.

Propes, a former trial lawyer and former assistant state’s attorney who has served on the court since 2010, had promised to promote positive news from the judiciary and to form a rapid-response team of retired judges to address criticism.

“Judge Evans did win the vote and I congratulate him,” Propes said. “It was very clear what each of us stood for and I respect that choice.

Evans was elected to the bench in 1992; nine years later his colleagues voted him to his first three year term as chief, the first black judge to be chosen. He now has been reelected six times.

Evans’ campaign focused on reforms to the court on his watch, including drug courts, a jobs program for people on probation, a fight to fund court support staff, and bail reform.
Both Evans and Propes said they discussed working together on some of Propes’ ideas, though they declined to discuss any specifics.

Of the 254 circuit judges, 246 convened Thursday at the Richard J. Daley Center to conduct an in-person vote. Evans’ name was placed in nomination by Illinois Appellate Court Judge Mary Coghlan — a cousin of the unsuccessful retention candidate Matthew Coghlan.

Chief Judge Timothy Evans

Timothy C. Evans / YouTube

Chief Judge Timothy Evans

In the weeks leading up to the election, supporters of both Propes and Evans reached out to their fellow judges in the hopes of reinforcing their candidate’s position.
One of Evans’ supporters, Judge Robert Balanoff, said after the vote, “It’s a
stamp of approval by those of us who know him best.”

The chief judge serves an important administrative role overseeing the operations of the courts in Cook County. This includes a budget of $272 million and the oversight of 2,400 non-judicial employees and about 400 associate and circuit judges. The chief judge has the ability to assign and reassign judges to their postings, which can be a key disciplinary measure to restrict judges causing harm.

The chief judge oversees about 2,400 non-judicial employees and 400 judges.

Because circuit judges are independently elected, the chief judge has limited power to do more than reassign judges who perform poorly or engage in misconduct.

The chief judge also has authority to enact procedural reforms, as Evans did in 2017 when he reformed the county bail regulations to ensure defendants who were deemed neither dangerous nor a flight risk did not remain in custody pretrial because they could not afford bail.

In his campaign video, Evans highlighted additional court reforms under his watch “that are both innovative and compassionate,” including drug courts, a jobs program for people on probation, and a fight to fund court support staff.

Many advocates for bail reform criticized how slow Evans was to enact the new rule, even as reform was supported by the Cook County board president, the Cook County state’s attorney, the Cook County public defender and the Cook County sheriff, among others.

But the reform was opposed by some judges and others who feared it both limited their authority and risked a judge being criticized should a suspect be released and then commit a crime that received news coverage.

Matthew Coghlan was one of 59 judges seeking retention last year, and — as in past years — the judges ran as a group, supporting each other, with money raised by a committee to support them all.

Traditionally those races have low visibility to voters, with the backing of the political parties that urge supporting each candidate.

But last year Injustice Watch and other news organizations focused attention on the records of judges, including negative aspects in the background of Matthew Coghlan and several other retention candidates.

Several independent organizations, including the Judicial Accountability PAC and ChicagoVotes, then seized on Matthew Coghlan’s record to mount a campaign focused on removing Coghlan from the bench. The Democratic party ultimately broke tradition and recommended a vote against Coghlan.

Judges contend that they are limited by the judicial canons in their ability to respond to questions about their conduct, and that criticisms of judges’ decisions may fail to present enough context.