Why judicial elections matter, and other common questions about the March primary

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As Injustice Watch launches our 2020 Judicial Election Voting Guide, we’re answering some common questions about how judicial elections work.

Judicial elections are how Cook County chooses the majority of its judges. The choices can seem overwhelming, with 117 candidates vying for 37 positions. Even many lawyers and judges express uncertainty when it comes to casting an informed vote.

We’ve spent months compiling as much relevant information about the candidates as we can find in our judicial voting guide. We’re also taking your questions via Twitter and answering them both on social media and in future posts.

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Take a look at the questions and answers below. If you still have questions after reading, please submit them via our Check Your Judges Survey, or Tweet @Injusticewatch with the hashtag #CheckYourJudges.

Why do judicial elections matter? 

Judges play a critical and influential role in society. They can be the decision-makers in a range of matters, including criminal charges, home foreclosures, child custody cases, and civil lawsuits.

When does early voting start? 

Early voting began on Feb. 19. Several early voting sites will be open starting March 2. Here is a list of early voting locations.

Where can I find my polling place? 

For early voting, find your polling place here. If you plan to vote on election day, March 17, find your polling place here.

What is the difference between Supreme Court, Appellate Court, and Circuit Court  judicial races?

Circuit Court judges stand the front-lines of the justice system. They hear all kinds of cases, from traffic matters to custody disputes to criminal cases. Circuit Court judges are elected to six-year terms, after which they must run for retention.

Appellate Court judges rule on cases originally decided in Circuit Court, via three-judge panels. At least two must agree for the court to issue an opinion. Appellate judges serve ten-year terms.

The Supreme Court is the highest court in Illinois. The court’s seven justices serve 10-year terms. They have an array of duties, including ruling on cases decided by the lower courts, filling judicial vacancies through appointments, creating court rules, and overseeing attorney licensing and discipline.

Why are there only Democrat judges? 

In Cook County, Democrats dwarf Republican voters. For example, in the 2016 primary election, just over 313,000 ballots were cast in the Republican primary, compared to the nearly 1.2 million Democratic primary ballots. As a result of the overwhelmingly Democratic electorate, nearly all candidates run as Democrats for countywide judicial vacancies. Three Republicans are running in competitive suburban subcircuit races where smaller portions of the electorate cast ballots.

Is there a difference between countywide and judicial subcircuit races?

All voters can cast ballots for countywide judicial races. In subcircuit races, only residents of the district can vote, and candidates must reside in the subcircuit. Once elected, there is no difference between countywide and subcircuit judges.

Why does Cook County have judicial subcircuit races? 

Cook County created the 15 judicial subcircuits in 1992 after criticism that countywide races were leaving people of color and Republicans shut out of the judiciary. The reason they exist is to increase diversity in the court and give marginalized ethnic and political groups the opportunity to become a judge that they would not have if they could only run countywide.

Why is there only one candidate in a particular race?

It could be for two reasons: Only one candidate entered the race to fill a particular vacancy, or other candidates previously running for the seat were kicked off the ballot. Read about ballot challenges, here.

Why are there so many Irish women? 

Identity politics play a significant role in judicial races since most voters don’t know about them. Irish-sounding female names have a proven statistical advantage. Most judicial hopefuls are aware of this, and some are recruited or choose to run based on the strength of their “ballot name.” Read more about the topic here.

What’s the difference between an associate judge and a circuit judge?

The public elects circuit judges to six-year terms. In contrast, associate judges are chosen by the publicly elected circuit judges in a secret ballot every four years. Circuit judges earn slightly more, and judges generally view circuit judge seats as more prestigious than associate seats.

Once a circuit judge is elected, how long do they keep their seat?

Circuit court judges are elected to serve six-year terms. After six years, elected judges face retention where they must acquire 60 percent of “yes” votes in the general election to keep their seats.

What things could be important in evaluating judicial candidates?

In our comprehensive voter guide, we have created several information flags to help voters #CheckYourJudges. Those flags include:

  • Past controversy: Controversy in a candidate’s past may be an indicator of poor judgment, ethical failings, or inadequate knowledge of the law.
  • Negative ratings: Bar associations interview candidates, review their careers and ask judges and attorneys who have worked with the candidates about their performance. (The associations base these ratings on qualifications, not political views, and negative scores are a strong signal that a candidate could make a poor judge).
  • Former state’s attorney: History as a prosecutor is an important qualification in terms of experience. Still, there is some research indicating that former prosecutors may be less sympathetic to civil rights claimants, criminal defendants, and economically disadvantaged people.
  • Former public defender: Practicing as a public defender could indicate experience in trying criminal cases. Former defense attorneys may be “more likely to be more sympathetic to defendants” in criminal cases, according to Professor Tonja Jacobi of Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law.
  • Appointed judges: These individuals have been appointed by the state Supreme Court to temporarily fill a vacancy. Having experience as a judge is a positive qualification, and the vetting that accompanies the nomination process may screen out unqualified candidates.
  • Party slating: This indicates that the Cook County Democratic Party has chosen the judicial hopeful as their favored candidate in the race. The party only considers candidates with a positive Chicago Bar Association rating for the coveted endorsement, and those chosen are usually politically connected.

I just read the recent Injustice Watch article about sham judicial candidates. Who are the serious candidates versus the sham candidates?

Sham candidates are put into a race to split the votes of another candidate, so that a third candidate has a better chance at winning. In Cook County, sham candidates tend to have Irish, female names, do little to no campaigning, report little or no spending, and run in a race with a similarly named candidate. Bonnie McGrath ran as a sham circuit judge candidate in 2016, according to people who got her on the ballot. Her 2020 circuit seat campaign resembles her 2016 run. Another potential example of a sham candidate is appellate court candidate Maureen O’Leary. Neither of the three major bar associations found McGrath or O’Leary qualified. To learn more about sham candidates, read the story.

What’s the difference between a primary election and a retention election? 

In Cook County, primary election races are for attorneys vying for new seats on the bench. Retention elections in November allow voters to cast “yes” or “no” ballots for sitting judges, determining if they will maintain their elected seats.

Which judges have good or bad reviews? 

In our judicial election guide, we’ve compiled ratings from three major bar associations: the Chicago Bar Association, the Chicago Council of Lawyers, and the Illinois State Bar Association. Check out our guide here.

How can I be a judge?

If you live in Cook County, are licensed to practice law in Illinois, and are a U.S. citizen, you can run. Candidates must also obtain a certain number of signatures from registered voters to earn a spot on the ballot. A candidate must turn in 1,000 for a subcircuit election, 3,322 for a countywide race or 5,050 for an appellate or Supreme Court race. It helps to have at least a decade of experience, a good reputation, and the ability to finance a potentially competitive race.

What else do you want to know about judicial elections in Cook County? Submit your questions, here or Tweet @Injusticewatch with the hashtag #CheckYourJudges.