Chicago alderperson eyes a seat on the bench in 2022 election

Alderman Chris Taliaferro of Chicago’s 29th Ward discusses a proposal for civilian oversight of the Chicago Police Department during a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, Wednesday, July 21, 2021. Taliaferro said he’s considering a run for Cook County judge in the 11th subcircuit. (Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

Chicago Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th Ward) said he plans to run for Cook County judge in next year’s election.

“We’re in the very beginning stages of setting up a campaign,” Taliaferro said in an interview with Injustice Watch.

Taliaferro, chair of the city council’s public safety committee, was a police sergeant before first winning election in 2015 and is a litigation attorney and founding partner at the Taliaferro Law Group. He was reelected in 2019 by residents of his ward, which includes parts of the Austin, Belmont Cragin, Galewood, Dunning, and Montclare neighborhoods on the city’s far West Side.

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Taliaferro, who also serves as the Cook County Democratic Party’s 29th Ward commiteeman, said he plans to run as a Democrat for a seat on the 11th subcircuit court, which covers parts of Chicago’s West Side and nearby suburbs, such as Oak Park and Elmwood, in the June 2022 primary.

Injustice Watch reached out to Taliaferro on Aug. 19 to confirm his judicial aspirations after Crain’s Chicago Business reported that he was seeking judgeship. While Taliaferro has his eye on next year’s subcircuit race, he said he’s still got a job to do in the 29th Ward until then, emphasizing that “my constituents deserve my 100% attention, and that’s what they’re going to continue to get.”

If Taliaferro makes it to the judiciary next year, he would join a small group of Chicago city council members who have left their ward posts for a spot on the bench, including current Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans. In 1992, Evans was elected to the circuit court after losing reelection the year prior as alderperson of the 4th Ward to Toni Preckwinkle, who’s the current Cook County board president.

Evans ran in the first election of the 5th subcircuit — one of 15 judicial subcircuits introduced by state legislators to the Circuit Court of Cook County in 1991. The idea behind the subcircuit districts was to give more Black, Hispanic, and Republican candidates opportunities to join a judiciary that is predominately white and overwhelmingly Democrat. Candidates have to live in a subcircuit’s district boundaries to vie for a seat there, and, if elected, must maintain residence as long as they hold office. Only residents of a district can vote in its subcircuit elections.

Since the inception of subcircuits, city council members have taken the opportunity to run for judge without having to do so in a countywide election. Former Ald. Raymond Figueroa (31st Ward) ran for judge in the 6th subcircuit in 1994. He served as a judge in the Circuit Court of Cook County for 13 years. In 2010, the Illinois Supreme Court appointed former Ald. Tom Allen (38th Ward) to the circuit court to fill a vacancy. He was elected for a full term to the 10th subcircuit two years later.

Taliaferro said when he was in law school at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Law, he had an opportunity to meet and shadow a judge who inspired him to consider the bench one day.

“It was at that time that I knew that that was something that I wanted to seek out in my career,” he said. “I think it’s a perfect opportunity for me to seek judgeship, and we’ll see how things go.”

Dick Simpson, a political science professor at UIC and a former city council member representing the 44th Ward, said there are a number of reasons why an alderperson would want to run for judicial office.

Circuit court judges make about $216,000 annually, one of the highest judicial salaries in the nation, according to data from the National Center for State Courts. That would be a raise of nearly $100,000, compared to what Taliaferro makes now working for Chicago, according to city employee salary data. Judgeships also come with more prestige — and less public pressure from constituents.

“You’re not arguing in a legislature, countering opposition; you’re not having to respond to service complaints from constituents, and it has an illusion of high prestige,” Simpson said.

Simpson said there are several factors that could potentially give city council members a leg up in judicial elections, starting with name recognition, the votes from your own ward, and being a member of the city council.

“Democratic candidates are more likely to know the key committeemen, whose support they need to get the party endorsements,” Simpson added.

The state’s primary election is now scheduled for June of next year, pushed back from March, to account for the delayed release of 2020 census data and the time that it takes to remap the city’s 50 wards and 15 judicial subcircuits within Cook County. Judicial candidates can begin collecting petition signatures Jan. 13, and they’re due to the Illinois State Board of Elections by March 14.