Cook County judicial primary election ensures more diverse bench

Updated: Friday, March 20 at 4:30 p.m. with additional results.

The Cook County Circuit Court will be more diverse as a result of Tuesday’s primary election, with significant numbers of women, people of color and LGBTQ candidates virtually assured of winning seats formerly held by judges who were mostly white and male.

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Jill Rose Quinn

Women and LGBTQ candidates won 28 of the 34 Democratic contests for seats on the Cook County Circuit Court. With no Republican opponents in most races, those candidates appear assured of winning seats in the November general election.

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Judicial candidate Jill Rose Quinn made history, becoming the first openly transgender judge in Illinois. Three other candidates who identify as LGBTQ, Michael Forti, Levander Smith Jr., and Mary Catherine Marubio, were also elected to the bench. Both Quinn and Forti had run unsuccessfully in previous years.

Twenty-three women secured open seats on the bench, while male candidates won in just seven races. In another race that remained two close to call on Friday, two women were separated by 126 votes. Two women won the Democratic nomination but will face male Republican opponents in the general election. Roughly the same number of men and women sought Circuit Court seats this election cycle.

In a judicial circuit that has not historically reflected the county’s diverse population, the court will have at least eight additional judges of color after the fall general election, according to an Injustice Watch analysis.

The primary took place as scheduled despite widespread fears about the novel coronavirus, which appeared to contribute to significantly lower in-person turnout. Voter turnout was more than 20 percentage points lower than the last contested presidential primary in 2016, according to data available Wednesday morning. Only 29 percent of registered voters in Cook County cast a ballot Tuesday. For voters who cast a Democratic ballot this primary, about 80 percent voted in at least one down-ballot circuit court race, up from 72 percent in 2016.

Cook County Democratic Primary Judicial Election Participation

Abigail Blachman

Cook County Democratic Primary Judicial Election Participation by year

As many as 74,000 mail-in ballots had not yet been returned or counted as of Wednesday morning, according to Chicago Board of Elections spokesman Jim Allen. In the 2016 March primary, only 32,280 mail in ballots were counted. As of Wednesday morning, 43,507 mail-in ballots had already been submitted, Allen said, although some of those had been rejected. The increase could be a result of fears related to the pandemic which has caused statewide closures of schools, restaurants and other businesses in recent days.

Party endorsements don’t assure victory

In the circuit and subcircuit elections, party endorsements and appointments to the bench appeared to give candidates an edge, but not a sure path to victory. Thirteen judges who had been appointed to seats on the Circuit Court will remain in their posts, while another six were knocked off the bench after polls closed on Tuesday. Eight of the Democratic Party’s chosen candidates won favor with voters, while three others—each sitting by appointment—failed to win the most votes in the race.

One appointed judge, Cara LeFevour Smith, chose not to run for a full term in the 7th subcircuit after facing criticism for her appointment in a diverse subcircuit. Former State Representative Pamela Reaves-Harris, who some local elected officials had lobbied to be appointed, won the seat with decisive support from West Side voters, overcoming Marcia O’Brien Conway’s lead in the suburban parts of the subcircuit.

Primary polling place

Emily Hoerner / Injustice Watch

A primary election polling location at Roosevelt High School in Albany Park.

Five of the 13 candidates with experience as public defenders won seats on the bench Tuesday, while 14 out of 43 assistant state’s attorneys who ran secured nominations for the general election, and 12 will run uncontested in the fall.

Voters elected four candidates who had negative ratings from bar associations, either because the candidates declined to participate in the evaluation process or because the lawyer groups found them not qualified after reviewing their records. A third of all judicial candidates received at least one negative rating from the three general bar associations that provide narratives for their decisions.

Perla Tirado won in the 14th subcircuit, despite negative ratings from two bar groups, who noted concerns about her lack of experience in “complex litigation.” Tirado defeated Daniel Tiernan, a white judge whose appointment last year to the seat in a largely Latinx district drew criticism from local activists and officials. Tiernan will remain on the bench despite his loss, as the Circuit Court judges selected him for an associate judgeship last December.

Public defender Tiesha Smith won in a countywide race despite not participating in the evaluation process for the three largest local bar associations. She ousted Kerrie Maloney Laytin, who is currently appointed to the seat and was slated by the party, and prosecutor Cristin Keely McDonald Duffy.

Two candidates were elected to the bench Tuesday despite controversies in their pasts. In the 8th subcircuit, voters elected Jonathan Clark Green, who has faced criticism for his work as an attorney for the city of Chicago in civil rights cases in which the city was sanctioned for withholding evidence. Frank DiFranco, who ran unopposed in the Republican primary for a 12th subcircuit seat, faces a lawsuit for allegedly helping disgraced former detective Reynaldo Guevara frame an innocent man while he was an assistant state’s attorney. Both candidates strongly denied the allegations against them in statements to Injustice Watch.

Attorney Anne Shaw narrowly lost to opponent Jamie Dickler. Shaw, who received negative ratings from bar groups, was disciplined after state regulators found that her family’s real estate business had engaged in deceptive practices, Injustice Watch reported.

Two of three black male appointed judges lost their seats to first-time candidates with Irish-sounding female names. Some research has shown that in countywide races, female and Irish-sounding names can give candidates an edge with voters. James T. Derico, Jr., and Lloyd James Brooks lost their seats to public defender Kelly Marie McCarthy and private attorney Elizabeth Anne Walsh, respectively. Levander Smith Jr., a black gay man, decisively beat Suzanne McEneely in a third race.

Attorney Chris Stacey, who was the Democratic Party’s pick, won a crowded countywide race that involved a potential “sham candidate,” allegedly placed on the ballot as a shill to draw votes from an opponent. Injustice Watch reported previously that Bonnie McGrath, who sources said has run as a sham candidate twice before, was put in the race to siphon votes from Jennifer Patricia Callahan, who came in just two percentage points behind Stacey. McGrath denied the allegations that she was put in the race to siphon votes from Callahan.

Six candidates faced no opposition in the primary race, and have no Republican challenger: Lynn Weaver Boyle, Tyria Walton, Daniel Maloney, Michael Forti, Krista Butler, and John Mulroe.

Only two races will have a contested election in November. In the 13th subcircuit, Republican Gary Seyring will face Democratic nominee Susanne Groebner, whom he defeated in the 2018 Republican primary. And in the 12th subcircuit, Republican DiFranco will face Democrat Patricia Fallon.

Apparent winners:

  • Tiesha L. Smith
  • Kelly Marie McCarthy
  • Laura Ayala-Gonzalez
  • Celestia L. Mays
  • Levander Smith Jr.
  • Chris Stacey
  • Teresa Molina
  • Sheree D. Henry
  • Elizabeth Anne Walsh
  • Lynn Weaver Boyle
  • Lorraine Mary Murphy
  • Maura McMahon Zeller
  • Jill Rose Quinn
  • Krista D. Butler
  • Tyria B. Walton
  • Sondra Nicole Denmark
  • Daniel E. Maloney
  • Erin Haggerty Antonietti
  • Jamie Guerra Dickler
  • Eileen Marie O’Connor
  • Pamela Reaves-Harris
  • Jonathan Clark Green
  • Michael A. Forti
  • Thomas M. Cushing
  • Julie Aimen
  • John G. Mulroe
  • Maire Aileen Dempsey
  • Mary Catherine Marubio
  • Gerardo Tristan Jr.
  • Perla Tirado
  • Nichole C. Patton

Too close to call:

  • 3rd Subcircuit (Flynn vacancy) Lauren Brougham Glennon leads Regina Ann Mescall

To be decided in November:

  • 12th Subcircuit (Hanlon vacancy) Patricia M. Fallon (D) vs. Frank R. DiFranco (R)
  • 13th Subcircuit (Kulys Hoffman vacancy) Susanne Michelle Groebner (D) vs. Gary William Seyring (R)

Abigail Blachman and John Seasly contributed reporting.