Diverse group begins lobbying circuit judges for seats on Cook County bench

After sharp criticism a year ago that the associate judge contests resulted in only one new black candidate winning a seat, Cook County court officials made a point to emphasize the diversity of finalists for the 15 seats to be filled by a vote of the county’s circuit judges.

“The Nominating Committee employed a comprehensive approach in the nomination process that considered multiple aspects such as a variety of legal experience in the public and private sectors, and diversity of race, ethnicity and gender,” Chief Judge Timothy Evans said in a release announcing the 30 finalists, half of whom will win seats following the election.

Though more than two-thirds of the 193 applicants for the vacancies are white, at least a third of the 30 finalists are people of color and nearly half the candidates are women, a review of the candidates shows.

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Campaigning by the finalists for the open seats, which will be decided by mail ballot of the Circuit Judges in December, began in earnest Wednesday, with finalists visiting judges’ chamber or seeking to sit down with them to ask for their support.

Associate judges are elected from a pool of finalists by the 252 circuit judges to serve four-year terms, and are paid slightly less than circuit judges, who serve six-year terms and are chosen by election of the voters, either countywide or by subcircuit. Associate judges and circuit judges are virtually identical in the courtroom; but circuit judges can hold supervisory positions, can run for chief judge, and can take part in the election of new associate judges.

The finalists for the associate judge seats include several who have been appointed by the state Supreme Court to temporarily fill vacancies on the circuit created since the 2018 election. Their inclusion as finalists for associate judge raised the possibility that some may be chosen as associate judges, and then in March win the primary races for circuit court — creating new openings for associate judges.

Though demographic statistics were not provided for the 30 finalists, a review of each candidate revealed 14 are women and at least 10 are people of color. At least six finalists are black.

As of 2018, about 70 percent of Cook County judges, both associate and circuit judges, were white and 59 percent were men. Nineteen percent were black, 7.5 percent are Hispanic and 2.6 percent are Asian-American.

The selection process came under fire in 2018 when, of 10 black finalists in the contest for 17 seats, only one black candidate ended up elected — and that seat was decided in a runoff among two candidates who tied for 17th.

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.

“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?” she said then.

Chief Justice Evans, who is a black man, had pledged then that the ballots would reflect diversity of race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. For the first time in at least a decade, Evans included diversity statistics of the initial applicants in announcing the finalists.

Among them is attorney Rouhy Shalabi, who was the first Arab-American commissioner of the Chicago Park District and a founding member of the Arab-American Bar Association.

Assistant State’s Attorney Laura Ayala-Gonzalez, who is Hispanic, has organized fundraisers for Puerto Rico and Mexico, held discussions with local Hispanic groups and mentored Hispanic lawyers and law students.

Circuit judge Levander Smith Jr., who is black, serves on the board of directors of the Cook County Bar Association’s LGBTQ section and is a member of the Lesbian and Gay Bar Association of Chicago.

Attorney John Fairman was named the Executive Board Member of the Year by the National Black Prosecutors Association, of which he is a former president. Assistant State’s Attorney Aileen Bhandari is the president-elect of the South Asian Bar Association and a former treasurer and chair of the judicial evaluation committee for the Indian American Bar Association.