Applications open for 10 new Cook County associate judges

State court officials opened applications this week for ten new associate judges to join the Cook County Circuit Court.

Any attorney licensed to practice in Illinois who is a U.S. citizen and a resident of Cook County can apply for the positions with the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts through March 3.

Seven of the announced vacancies come as a result of retirements and resignations. One of the seats was vacated by Thomas More Donnelly — who was appointed by the state supreme court to fill a countywide circuit judge vacancy and is running for election to that position. The remaining two associate judgeships are newly created positions.

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The last time associate judge vacancies were open to new applicants, in August 2021, 246 people applied for 22 seats.

Associate judges are selected by the court’s elected circuit judges in a process that is supposed to be merit-based and provide a counterbalance to a judiciary largely selected through partisan elections. But critics have for years said that the process of picking associate judges favors politically connected and white applicants. An Injustice Watch analysis of the last class of associate judges, sworn into office in October, found the group to be more demographically diverse than past cohorts, but more than half were former prosecutors.

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Former prosecutors dominate the roster of 22 new associate judges, who were selected last week by the county’s circuit judges.

The Chicago Bar Association and the Alliance of Bar Associations will evaluate applicants and a committee composed of Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans and the presiding judges of the court’s various divisions will review the applications. The committee is required to select a “short list” of twice as many finalists as there are positions to fill. Then, the circuit judges will vote to pick ten new colleagues out of the 20 in the finalist pool.

Once in office, associate judges are paid slightly less than publicly elected judges and can’t vote in elections for the chief judge or future cohorts of associate judges, but otherwise they function the same and are assigned across all court divisions. About half of the judges currently handling felony courtrooms at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse are associate judges, as well as many of the judges handling felony cases in the county’s suburban courthouses. Associate judges make up about one-third of the roughly 400-member judiciary in Cook County.

Associate judges serve four-year terms and can be re-elected indefinitely by the circuit judges. Historically, few associate judges have lost their bid for re-election — which requires 60% of circuit judges to vote to keep them — even those with significant appellate court reversals finding errors in their interpretation of the law, negative bar ratings, and documented histories of problematic behavior.

The judges being replaced served on the bench for an average of 19 years. Timothy J. Chambers, the longest-serving of the judges being replaced, had been on the bench since 1997.

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