Ask an expert: Bar association ratings, explained

Bar associations, or groups of attorneys and judges, have begun releasing their evaluations of judicial candidates for the upcoming election. With 62 judges up for retention and two contested elections for open seats, the bar association ratings are an important tool in deciding a judge’s fitness for public office. You’ll find the ratings from three of the bar associations in our November 2020 Cook County Judicial Election Guide.

The ratings process is complex, so we asked Malcolm Rich, the executive director of the Chicago Council of Lawyers, one of the local bar associations, to help explain it. Here’s what he had to say.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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What is a bar association?

A bar association is a professional organization for lawyers. Some bar associations are organized around particular identities, like the Black Women’s Lawyers Association or the Lesbian and Gay Bar Association, while others are general interest associations. Many bar associations are primarily concerned with furthering the best interests of their lawyer members, but some bar associations focus on systemic reform of the justice system.

Malcolm Rich

Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice

Malcolm Rich, executive director of the Chicago Council of Lawyers.

How do bar associations evaluate judges?

There are at least 13 bar associations that evaluate judges and judicial candidates in Cook County. Each conducts the evaluations in different ways, but there are some common elements:

  • A written questionnaire provided to the judge or judicial candidate, which asks about the candidate’s career and professional development and information on any complaints filed against them with the Judicial Inquiry Board or the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, the bodies that investigate potential misconduct by judges and attorneys in Illinois.
  • Some bars ask candidates to complete essay questions about issues such as racial bias. Interviews of judges, attorneys, and others with personal knowledge about the judge or candidate.
  • A review of the candidate’s professional written work, where available.
  • An interview with the judge or candidate.
  • A review of any information available from public records, such as the Board of Election Commissioners, the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, the Judicial Inquiry Board, and prosecutorial agencies.

After the bar associations issue their initial rating or write-up, each judge or candidate has the opportunity to appeal. Many bar associations issue only a rating; some bar associations also provide written rationales for their rating.

Why are there so many groups that rate candidates?

By having multiple bar associations evaluate judges and candidates, voters have the opportunity to get multiple viewpoints about a judge or judicial candidate.

Read More

Five things to know about this year’s bar association ratings

A third of the judicial candidates got at least one negative rating, but whether that matters will be up to the voters.

Does a “not qualified” evaluation mean I shouldn’t vote for that judge?

A “not qualified” evaluation means that the bar association issuing the evaluation wants you to vote no for that retention judge or judicial candidate. I recommend you take a look at the reasons for the evaluations, if provided, and make your own assessment from there.

What are common criticisms of the bar association evaluations?

Seldom are the 13 bar associations that evaluate candidates unanimous in their results. This confuses some judicial voters. In addition, some judicial voters want more detailed information about the judges or candidates being evaluated and only some bar associations provide information beyond the rating.

In addition, bar association evaluations are a volunteer effort that have to be conducted in a relatively short period of time. The bar associations do much with few resources. But some voters would like the benefit of judicial evaluations conducted through a more extensive research effort, which could provide court management data, the results from court watching, and comments from litigants, in addition to the lawyers appearing before the judges.

Investigations that expose, influence and inform. Emailed directly to you.