How to become a Cook County judge: One key step, woo Dem party

After a grueling process, and a willingness to commit $40,000 to the Cook County Democratic Party, a series of judicial hopefuls learned Friday if they passed muster. The hopes and dreams of judicial hopefuls often rests on winning the party's support.

Update: The Democratic party has released the names of the Cook County judicial candidates who have received party endorsement. They are listed in full at the bottom of this article. 

For months, Cook County lawyers hoping to become trial or appellate judges have been struggling to win endorsements, funding and credibility in their efforts.

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But the hopes and dreams of many judicial hopefuls rests on winning support from the Cook County Democratic party. In one last ditch effort before the slating was announced on Friday, the candidates appeared at the IBEW Local 134 on Chicago’s South Side to appear before dozens of committemen, hoping to win party support for the 2020 judicial races.

“If I am slated, you don’t just get me, you get the Pez brigade,” said Diane Pezanoski, who not only came with a “Highly Qualified” rating from the Chicago Bar Association, she also has already has created a website and campaign literature. (On Friday, when the evaluations came out, Pezanoski was named the party’s eighth alternate, in case more openings arise.)

Candidate Amanda Pillsbury emphasized that she had worked to meet with committee members throughout the city to win their support before the slating decisions.

“Since pre-slating I have worked my very hardest to come out and meet as many of you as I could,” Pillsbury said. “Between balancing my full-time job as an attorney, coaching Little League and being a mother to four small children…I look forward to meeting the rest of you if you choose to slate me.” (On Friday, Pillsbury was named the party’s ninth alternate).

And on it went.

Robert Groszek stressed his electability in the Polish community.

“I want to be that Polish guy. I want to get that vote for you,” he said. Though his bar rating was still pending, he was confident it would be positive. “I’ve got no dirt on me at all. Try and find it,” he dared the room. (Groszek failed to win endorsement for any of the 12 vacancies or the 10 alternate choices).

Except in some suburban areas, winning the party’s endorsement has the potential to make or break a candidate’s chance at an elected bench seat. And while strong legal qualifications play a major role in winning that endorsement, community presence, money and a demonstrable loyalty to the party all play a factor as well.

The hopefuls have pledged, if they are endorsed, to turn over $40,000 in funds to the party to support election efforts, spokeswoman Delmarie Cobb said. That money, she said, helps fund the party’s efforts to turn out voters for the slated candidates, through everything from mailers to foot soldiers who help ensure voters turn out to support slated candidates.

Choosing which candidates to endorse is a difficult decision, said state senator Don Harmon, chair of the circuit court judicial selection committee.

“It is a three-dimensional conversation,” Harmon said. “We try to look for candidates qualified across the board.”

As candidates for circuit court judge walked to the podium, their Chicago Bar Association ratings were announced to the room. The candidates have the chance to explain a still-pending rating or, worst of all, a “Not Qualified” rating.

“We don’t endorse candidates that aren’t qualified,” Harmon said.

Harmon said the goal is to bring a slate that resembles the diversity of Cook County.

“We try to build a coalition to advance a slate that looks like Cook County,” he said.

The overall process is simple, said state senator Rob Martwick. “It’s only complicated by the massive geographic size and the incredible diversity of Cook County.”

The highest-profile event of the day was the choice between seven Illinois Supreme Court candidates for the single 10-year-term bench seat chosen by Cook County voters.

Incumbent P. Scott Neville Jr. was an appellate judge before he received a temporary appointment to fill the vacancy created last year when Charles E. Freeman, the only black justice on the Illinois Supreme Court court, retired. After joining the high court, Neville authored the opinion this year concluding that sentences of more than 40 years for crimes committed by juveniles amounted to life sentences.

As he seeks a full term, Neville faces six apparent contenders for the seat including Illinois Appellate Court Judge Nathaniel Howse Jr . Both Neville and Howse are African-American men who won “Highly Qualified” ratings from the Chicago Bar Association.

Neville has won strong endorsements, most notably from Cook County Democratic Party chair Toni Preckwinkle, the county board president. But NBC-5 Investigates discovered Neville has enjoyed a property tax exemption currently worth $726, on the house of his late mother, who died in 1991. Ownership of the property, in which Neville does not live, was passed by his siblings to Neville in 2004. The assessor’s office said it did not know who requested the exemption, and Neville, who said he had not requested it, expressed an interest in returning the money.

Howse, who was endorsed by Secretary of State Jesse White, pointed out that an opponent of Neville’s could point to the exemption as a “serious ethical breach.”

On Friday, the party announced that it was supporting Neville for the opening on the state’s high court.

Other nominees winning the party’s backing:

For Illinois Appellate Court:

Michael B. Hyman, John C. Griffin. Alternates, in order of rank: William Boyd, Sandra Ramos, Sharon Johnson

For Cook County Circuit Judge:

Kerry Maloney Laytin, James T. Derico Jr., Laura Ayala-Gonzalez, Celestia L. Mays, Levander Smith Jr.,  Christ Stacy, Lloyd James Brooks, Lynn Weaver Boyle, Araceli De La Cruz, Maura McMahon Zeller, Jill Rose Quinn.

Alternates, in order of rank: Thomas E. Nowinski, Travis Richardson, Cristin McDonald Duffy, Eric Sauceda, Yolanda Sayre, Frank Andreou, Joseph Chico, Diane Marie Pezanoski, Amanda Pillsbury, Ashonta Rice-Akiwowo.