Amidst unrest over judicial criticism, Cook County judges consider unseating chief

Timothy Evans, the Cook County circuit court chief judge for 18 years, is facing a challenge for his post this year based in large part on whether Evans is doing enough to protect judges from criticism.

Circuit Judge Lorna Propes said in a video she sent to the roughly 250 circuit judges that “an unprecedented series of attacks from special-interest groups” during the judicial retention races last year prompted her to challenge Evans’ effort to hold onto his post as chief for three more years.

Chief Judge Timothy Evans

Timothy C. Evans / YouTube

Chief Judge Timothy Evans

The campaigning for the post, which is to be decided by a vote of the circuit judges on Thursday, appears to reflect the disdain harbored by many of the county’s judges over developments in the election last year when Matthew Coghlan became the first Cook County judge since 1990 to fail to capture the 60 percent of the vote needed to retain his seat for a new term.

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Lorna Propes

Lauren Himel / Youtube

Candidate for chief judge Lorna Propes

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 several of the retention candidates.

Several independent organizations, including the Judicial Accountability PAC and ChicagoVotes, then seized on 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.

“The linchpin of this campaign is about empowering you,” Propes said in the video, including “defending you when you are maligned by unfair political attacks.”

Propes hopes to unseat Evans, who now is the longest-serving chief judge ever. A former alderman, Evans was elected to the bench in 1992; nine years later his colleagues voted him as the chief, the first black judge to be chosen. He since has been reelected five times.

Propes, a former trial lawyer and former assistant state’s attorney who has served on the court since 2010, has promised to limit the chief judge position to two three-year terms if elected.

Neither Propes nor Evans agreed to be interviewed about the contest.

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.

Organization of the Cook County Circuit Court

Circuit Court of Cook County

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 is also responsible, along with a panel of two to 10 circuit judges, for creating a list of finalists to fill vacancies for associate judge, who then are chosen by vote of the circuit judges. Currently, the presiding judge of each division, together with Evans, comprises the nomination panel. Propes says in her video that she would let any judge interested in joining the committee apply for consideration.

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 a 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.

Evans also has on occasion taken up the role of defender of the judicial system against criticism, a responsibility not specified for the position. When Injustice Watch and the Chicago Sun-Times reported on controversies involving a handful of judges seeking new terms as associate judges, Evans jumped in to the judges’ defense.

In two cases, Associate Judge Angela Petrone was reversed by the appellate courts when both the State’s Attorney and defense had jointly agreed that defendants’ convictions were tainted and should be overturned. In one case, after Judge Neera Walsh refused to grant a new trial even after she had been reversed once by the Illinois Appellate Court, the court again reversed her saying in its opinion that Walsh had committed “serious error” and “apparently had felt free to reject our findings.”

Evans wrote to the Sun-Times, “Our system of justice is built with all of this in mind, and it provides remedies for litigants to pursue when they disagree with court decisions and guidance on when those decisions are final.”

But Propes contends the chief judge must take a more aggressive stance when judges are criticized.

Coghlan’s defeat came after an examination of his record revealed a lawsuit by two exonerated men who contended that he framed them, as prosecutor before becoming judge; lenient sentencing in two cases against police officers; and one-year jail sentences for several young black men charged with marijuana possession.

Though he was the only judge not to reach the 60 percent favorable vote required for retention, other judges also had received negative attention. Maura Slattery Boyle received less than 63 percent favorable vote — the lowest vote total for a retention candidate since at least 2010 — after Injustice Watch reported she had been overturned more often, and imposed harsher sentences, than any other judge in the criminal division over the previous six years. Slattery Boyle has since been reassigned, at her request, to the law division.

“What I saw was a court administration wholly indifferent to the needs and concerns of our judges, an administration that allowed the very reputation of the judiciary to be undermined in the community at large,” Propes said. She proposed a more proactive approach to positive information about the judiciary, along with the creation of a “rapid response team of retired judges, to respond to undeniably false and misleading attacks on the judiciary.”

“In short, I promise to be nothing less than your advocate,” she said to her colleagues in the video.

As the election nears, both candidates received letters of support, sent to their fellow circuit judges, from individual judges.

Illinois Appellate Court judge Mary Mikva wrote on behalf of Evans, saying he had done “an excellent job,” citing his judicial assignments, his choice of presiding judges, and his implementation of bail reform. “He represents us well as the only face of the court system that much of the public ever sees,” she added.

Other judges focused their letters more directly on protecting judges from criticism.

Circuit Judge Robert Balanoff wrote that Evans “must advocate for the judiciary without violating ethical considerations in defending individual judges. Tim does this well.” Circuit Judge Patricia Martin, presiding judge of the child protection division, wrote that Evans “has proven to be an effective champion of judicial independence and of the individual judges who have found themselves in difficulty.”

On the other side, Circuit Judges Daniel Pierce, Marcia Maras and Raymond Mitchell sent a joint letter supporting Propes, highlighting criticism of the judiciary in the 2016 and 2018 retention elections, and describing Evans as “unresponsive.”

Propes, they wrote, “will protect our independence and ensure that fair criticism of the legal system does not cross the line into political intimidation.”