Check Your Judges: Why Cook County judicial elections matter

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Injustice Watch is partnering with The TRiiBE to provide stories, perspectives, and critical information about the 2020 Election. Click here for Injustice Watch’s judicial election guide.

As President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden wrestle atop the 2020 election ballot, 61 Cook County judges at the bottom of the ticket are vying to keep their jobs.

But the judges running for retention don’t craft viral tweets or make many headlines.

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Many people don’t even know their names.

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Injustice Watch Judicial Election Guide

November 2020 Judicial Election Guide

Injustice Watch's guide to the 2020 Cook County judicial general and retention elections.

Research shows many voters choose judges based on their political party or assumptions about their ethnicity or gender. About one-quarter of Cook County voters in 2018 skipped over the judicial section of their ballot altogether, either because they were overwhelmed with the choices or just didn’t have enough information about the candidates.

But judicial elections bring high stakes and consequences, especially for Black, Latinx and other marginalized groups disproportionately impacted by the justice system. Judges wield immense power to change lives for better — or for worse. That’s why Injustice Watch put together an election guide for the 2020 Cook County judicial elections. The guide — also available in Spanish — offers voters a deep dive into all 61 judges running for retention this year (not counting one candidate on the ballot, Jude Mauricio Araujo, who recently resigned before the Illinois Courts Commission could discipline him for sexual harassment).

Circuit Court judges serve six-year terms and hear all kinds of cases, from traffic tickets to personal injury to child welfare to criminal cases. Appellate Court judges – there are two running for retention this year – hear appealed cases from the Circuit Court and serve ten-year terms. At the end of their terms, the judges have to run to keep their jobs for another term. Voters have just two options on their ballot: Vote “Yes” to keep the judge or “No” to remove them.

A judge needs 60 percent of the people who vote in their retention race to vote “yes” in order to keep their seat, but historically, voters have almost always chosen to retain judges. In 2018, only one judge, Matthew Coghlan, was not retained. He faced accusations from two exonorees that he allegedly helped frame for murder more than two decades ago when he was an assistant state’s attorney.

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Voters cast their ballots at the early voting ‘Super Site’ in downtown Chicago on Oct. 1, 2020.

This election, our research sheds more light on controversial decisions made by some judges during their tenure, as well as their past stints as private attorneys, public defenders and government prosecutors. The guide also highlights personal connections between judges and other public figures in the city and the state.

Voting in judicial elections is particularly crucial at this moment. Many people have called for police defunding and the abolition of prisons and jails, confronting state violence and gendered violence, and reckoning with the legacy of inequity in our country, including the consequences of mass incarceration in Black and Latinx communities. But we can’t have an honest conversation about injustice without considering the role of judges, whose ranks are dominated by white men.

That’s especially true in Chicago.

We can’t trace the history of racial segregation here without considering the restrictive covenants that barred Black people from white neighborhoods — and the local circuit court judges who affirmed the laws for decades before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional in 1948.

We can’t tell stories about the legacy of racist Chicago Police Department (CPD) torture, scores of false confessions cops brought to prosecutors and the wrongful convictions that resulted from them, without considering the role of the Cook County judges who presided over those cases, ignored testimony about tortured confessions or outright prevented people from bringing new evidence back into court through post-conviction motions. We also can’t explain the culture of corruption in Cook County without examining how judges have, at times, either been directly culpable in scandals or complicit with misconduct.

Our research highlights some recent troubling cases of judicial power.

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Judge blocks key legal protection for detained youth

Presiding Judge Michael Toomin has said youth detention reviews cannot be filed if they mention a law that juveniles cannot be held more than 30 days pre-trial. Chief Judge Timothy Evans is clarifying his order to say they can.

As Covid-19 spreads behind bars, many judges worked to reduce the adult jail population to lessen the odds that pre-trial detention would become a death sentence — even as protestors and people arrested for alleged looting in the summer uprisings appeared before them.

However, the county’s top juvenile court judge, Michael Toomin, came under fire for making it harder for juveniles seeking release from detention during the pandemic. Toomin is one of the 61 judges seeking retention in this election.

Another retention candidate, Judge Jackie Portman-Brown, has been on administrative duty since February after a video showed her having her young grandniece locked up in the holding cell behind her courtroom.

Our research also included an analysis of judges whose decisions have been reversed after an appeals court decided the judge was wrong and overturned all or part of a ruling. While reversals happen for many reasons and may not be a sign of incompetence or malice, several attorneys told us a high number of reversals could signal that a circuit judge has a poor understanding of the law.

Judge Kenneth J. Wadas, one judge running to keep his job, has had his decisions reversed 25 times in the past six years, more than any other criminal court judge seeking retention this year. Appeals courts found that Wadas frequently disregarded a law that prevents excessive sentencing, incorrectly dismissed prisoners’ claims of errors during their trials and improperly dismissed post-conviction petitions from men claiming innocence on at least four occasions.

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Appeals court reverses this judge more than any other in criminal courts seeking retention

Kenneth J. Wadas has been reversed 25 times in 6 years — more than any other Cook County criminal court judge on the November ballot running to remain in office.

When Wadas was an assistant state’s attorney in the 1980s, he was involved in multiple cases where prosecutors’ misconduct resulted in reversals, according to a 1999 Chicago Tribune investigation. The Illinois Appellate court found he engaged in tactics it referred to as “an insult to the court and to the dignity of the trial bar,” and suggested he appear before the board that hears attorney misconduct cases. But he was never disciplined. Instead, he was promoted by his boss, then-State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley, and later became a judge.

Judges are fallible like the rest of us. We all make mistakes. But unlike the rest of us, judges have the authority to strip someone’s freedom, sometimes for decades. They are the front line of the justice system, and not just in the criminal division. A lot of the judges running for retention also rule on foreclosures, evictions, traffic violations, child custody cases and civil rights lawsuits. The decisions, orders, and sentences they hand down can rebuke or perpetuate institutional injustices.

The race for the White House is an important one, but let’s not overlook the down ballot this election. So vote this year, if you can. And don’t forget to check your judges.

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