For the first time in Illinois history, a former judge who was voted out of office is running to get back on the bench.
In 2020, Jackie Marie Portman-Brown became only the second sitting judge in 30 years to lose a retention election in Cook County. Her dozen years on the bench came to a controversial end after she was abruptly reassigned to administrative duties following an incident with her 6-year-old grandniece in February 2020. Security camera footage captured her leaving the girl for about 10 minutes in an empty, locked cell behind her courtroom in the Leighton Criminal Court Building. Months later, despite the continued support of the Cook County Democratic Party, she lost her seat.
Portman-Brown is seeking another vacancy in the 5th judicial subcircuit on Chicago’s South Side in the June 28 Democratic primary.
Investigations that expose, influence and inform. Emailed directly to you.
In an interview with Injustice Watch, Portman-Brown said a “private family moment” had been sensationalized and taken out of context by the news media. Her grandniece had been having behavior problems in school, she said, and the girl’s father, her nephew, had a similar “scared straight” experience as a child. The girl’s mother had come to ask her for the favor after her court call had ended. Her mother wanted the girl “to know what happens to people who break the rules,” Portman-Brown said. “If she keeps fighting in school and stealing people’s stuff, this is what will happen to her.’”
After the incident, when she had a chance to explain herself in her social circles, some still “didn’t understand the tough-love mentality that was intended for my grandniece, but a lot of people in this community were raised with that,” said Portman-Brown, noting her upbringing in the Englewood neighborhood. “Would I do this again? Probably not. But her behavior has been improved since this incident.”
Even before the incident with her grandniece, Portman-Brown had attracted criticism for her informal, brash style in the courtroom and her handling of an intensive probation program called the HOPE court that the state shut down in 2018. Independent reviews found the program rife with problems, some springing from Portman-Brown’s leadership. Portman-Brown still maintains that the evaluations didn’t present a full picture of a program that most participants completed successfully.
Still, it was the questionable judgment with her grandniece that haunted Portman-Brown as the retention election approached in 2020. That year, the Illinois State Bar Association and six other lawyers’ groups found her not qualified to continue as a judge, though the Chicago Bar Association and Chicago Council of Lawyers still recommended her retention. “Her behavior on the bench has been described by some as quirky, but effective,” the Council of Lawyers wrote in its review, noting, though, that “her detractors say she is erratic and unpredictable.”
Portman-Brown narrowly missed the 60 percent threshold needed to win another six-year term county-wide, garnering 59.32% yes votes. She believes the controversy cost her the judicial seat.
When Portman-Brown took a closer look at the election results, though, she saw that voters in her home 5th subcircuit solidly backed her retention. Indeed, an Injustice Watch analysis of the 2020 retention election results confirmed that Portman-Brown got almost 69% yes votes in the 5th subcircuit. Buoyed by those results, she decided to run again following her failure in 2021 to be appointed an associate judge.
With her controversial tenure on the bench, Portman-Brown would appear to face an uphill battle to win election again. Eight of the 13 bar associations that evaluated her found her not qualified or not recommended, including the Chicago Bar Association, which reversed its favorable rating from two years ago. In addition, she faces a crowded field of candidates: Timothy Wright III, who has aggressively raised funds, as well as Tiffany Brooks and Judie Lyn Smith.
But the dearth of information surrounding judicial races may prove to benefit Portman-Brown. In interviews with a dozen voters in the 5th subcircuit in recent weeks, an Injustice Watch reporter found no one who knew of the controversial end to her time on the bench.
Voters unaware of Portman-Brown’s past controversy
The 5th judicial subcircuit stretches across a wide swath of the South Side — from Bridgeport to South Shore and from West Englewood to Lake Michigan — and includes nearly 240,000 mostly Black residents.
Standing outside Jordan Valley Food, the corner store at 73rd Street and Jeffery Boulevard where he works, Nelson Brown, 64, a tall man with a gray beard tied in a short braid, finished his cigarette break under a light drizzle of rain. Though a sign urging a vote to “Elect Timothy W. Wright III” had been stuck behind the teal metal bars protecting the windows of the store, neither Brown nor Sam, the shopkeeper, knew of Wright. No one had asked for permission to stick the sign in the window or even introduced themselves.
“All these judges — all these people who are supposed to be helping people — they not helping nobody,” said Brown, who described how he was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to six years in prison in the late 1980s for an armed robbery. “They not helping Black people.” It didn’t matter that all the candidates for judge in the 5th subcircuit are Black, he said, because the system is “all about the white people.”
Others expressed interest in voting for judges but frustration with how few of those candidates reach out in the way others running for elected office usually do.
“There’s no engagement (with voters) at all” among most judicial candidates, said Anthony Driver, a one-time 20th Ward aldermanic candidate who lives in the 5th subcircuit and works as a political strategist and campaign consultant. “I’ve never seen a real political campaign around judge races where there’s any type of informing of voters. The most you’ll get is a palm card.”
Driver said he doubted any voters would even remember that Portman-Brown used to be a judge, let alone that her career on the bench ended in controversy. He himself had vague recollections of an incident but not the details of what happened. “There’s a lot of aldermen and state reps I could call right now who don’t know who she is,” Driver said. “She might as well be a first-time candidate.”
Portman-Brown has posted photos and videos on Facebook and TikTok of herself campaigning and made appearances on local radio stations, touting her 12 years of experience on the bench. Yet questions about her past or how she lost her seat didn’t come up.
Recently, Portman-Brown appeared with three other women running for judge on Tio Hardiman’s Sunday program on radio station WVON. During the Mother’s Day broadcast, Hardiman, the former director of CeaseFire who ran for Illinois governor in 2018, lobbed softball questions to the candidates.
Hardiman said he hadn’t heard about Portman-Brown’s past controversy and didn’t know that she’d lost a retention election in 2020. “I’m not gonna lie to you like I did some extensive research,” he said. “What I do is I allow everyone to talk about their background and where they come from.” The shows with judicial candidates have prompted lots of listeners to call in with questions, he said.
‘Ghost campaigns’ for judge
Judicial campaigns for circuit court are notoriously low-profile. The door-knocking and stump speeches that define political races higher up on the ballot are rare for these candidates, in part because ethics rules restrict candidates for judge from opining on issues that might come up in cases they would have to rule on. It can be impossible to get judicial candidates to say what they stand for beyond bland promises of fairness.
Voters also tend to know far less about the candidates for judge because the races involve much less money. Donations and spending in most of the races for Cook County commissioners are breaking the half-million-dollar mark, while more than $6 million has poured into the Cook County assessor’s contest. Yet just about a month before the primary, Portman-Brown and two of her three opponents have reported spending little to no money.
Portman-Brown took out a loan for $30,000 from Fifth Third Bank and received $2,000 from an individual donor in late May, campaign finance records show. She has yet to report spending the money but has plans to buy ads, according to an adviser. By contrast, Wright, who would appear to pose the biggest challenge to Portman-Brown, has been far more aggressive. He began raising funds last October and has reported spending a little more than half of the nearly $150,000 he has raked in, mostly on consulting expenses. (Records show Wright returned nearly $19,000 of that to comply with a new state law barring judicial candidates from accepting money from out-of-state donors.)
Wright’s lawn signs seem ubiquitous around the subcircuit, sprouting beside spring bulbs in parks and along major thoroughfares. Door-to-door campaigning, though, has been hard to kick-start because of lousy spring weather and continuing Covid-19 concerns, said Wright, who lives in Hyde Park.
Wright, an attorney for 40 years, became the first Black lawyer to join Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, helping on its landmark Gautreaux public housing discrimination lawsuit. In the late 1980s, he worked for Chicago Mayors Harold Washington and Eugene Sawyer, then moved to Washington, D.C., and worked for several presidential administrations and as chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush. He then spent years in diplomatic affairs in sub-Saharan Africa. On his return to Chicago, he represented Roland Burris over his controversial appointment to fill Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat by embattled Gov. Rod Blagojevich following Blagojevich’s indictment on corruption charges.
Wright, who has garnered endorsements from most of the elected officials whose fiefdoms overlap the 5th subcircuit, told Injustice Watch he wants to be a judge as “part of a bucket list.” His experience in civil litigation and ties to the local community, including as an ordained minister, give him a “perspective that is needed on the bench,” he said. “I think I can help restore and build public confidence in the justice system.” He has been rated qualified and recommended for the bench by all 12 of the bar associations that have evaluated him.
Another candidate, Tiffany Brooks, an attorney with the Cook County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office who lives in South Shore, has also won support for her bid from local elected officials. Both 5th Ward Ald. Leslie Hairston, who beat back Brooks’ challenge for her seat in 2015, and 20th Ward Ald. Jeanette Taylor have endorsed Brooks. Their wards account for more than one-third of the subcircuit.
“We need somebody who is fair and who will try to help these young people,” Taylor said, noting that she has observed Brooks engaging with youth on civic issues. “Our young people get 10-20 years for stealing — they don’t do that to other children that aren’t Black and brown. (Brooks) has a son. She understands.”
Yet as Election Day approaches, Brooks is showing little sign of campaigning. While she has formed a campaign committee, she has yet to report raising or spending any money — though candidates aren’t required to do so until they raise or spend $5,000. She has no campaign website and did not respond to phone calls, text messages, or emails from Injustice Watch.
Brooks has been found not qualified or not recommended by five of the nine bar associations that evaluated her.
The remaining candidate, Judie Lyn Smith, a Cook County assistant public defender assigned to the courthouse in suburban Markham, was the only one of the four whom an Injustice Watch reporter saw engaging with voters in person. The South Shore resident also has been campaigning on Facebook and has planted some signs in people’s yards. Since February, Smith has reported raising just $700 while spending $3,000, according to campaign finance records.
On a Saturday in late May, Smith, dressed all in black, walked around the 61st Street Farmers Market, stopping to chat with people, handing out glossy informational cards and asking voters to make her “your Judge Judie.”
In her pitch, Smith argued that her studies and work experience in France and Japan, her 30-year career as an attorney, and her volunteer work in urban gardens that supply food pantries have given her the multicultural experiences, legal knowledge, and empathy needed to be a good judge. Eleven of the 13 bar associations that evaluated her have found her qualified or recommended for the bench.
With no background in politics, she was hesitant to interact with a reporter or give an interview, responding instead to questions from Injustice Watch in an email that essentially recycled the bullet points from her campaign literature.
Smith, like Portman-Brown, has not been endorsed by any local elected officials who could use their own political organization to help promote her candidacy and get out the vote. In one message, she wrote that her main focus was to reach out to voters in the subcircuit “to let them know who I am!”
Candidates’ qualifications may not decide the race
If the candidates’ campaign efforts continue in a similar vein for the final month of the primary season, the contest results may end up having little to do with voters’ judgments of Portman-Brown or the strengths of her opponents’ credentials and political pull.
The voters who spoke to Injustice Watch acknowledged that deciding races for judge can be a struggle largely because of a lack of information about the candidates. Some said they check out bar association ratings to help them choose. Others said they try to do their own research but often can’t find news articles about those seeking to be judges. Still others said they relied on the advice of those they trust to be more in the know — pastors, attorneys, and friends who work in politics.
Yet some confessed they have resorted to choosing names of candidates randomly. One African-American man said that when in doubt he tries to “pick a name that sounds Black.”
Albert Klumpp, a researcher on judicial elections, has found that having a surname common among African Americans has helped judicial candidates win in majority-Black subcircuits such as the 5th — just as Irish names have historically helped candidates elsewhere in Cook County.
And other arbitrary factors can influence voters as well, including who’s first on the ballot and the number of women in the race. “People think the first and last position (on the ballot) is valuable, but, in fact, the farther down you go the worse off you are,” Klumpp said in an interview. After analyzing decades of election data, Klumpp found that one in 10 judicial contests would have a different winner if someone else’s name had been listed first on the ballot.
In the 5th subcircuit race, Wright enjoys that prime position.
Being the only woman running against men has historically helped women win judicial contests, Klumpp said. But when multiple women are in the race, that vote is split.
Klumpp, whose research found that Portman-Brown is the first judge in Illinois to lose a retention election and then run again for the bench, noted that in her initial election in 2008, her name was the first on the ballot in a contest against two men. “She won’t have that on her side this year,” he said.
While the 5th subcircuit voters who spoke with Injustice Watch admitted difficulty in making informed decisions on judicial races, they strongly supported leaving that decision in voters’ hands. Many of them have had a personal experience in a courtroom and know the important role that judges play.
Still, “the depth of people’s attention just doesn’t get down to the judges,” said Nicole Kenner, 43, during a break from working at the Sip & Savor coffee shop on 43rd Street on a recent Saturday afternoon.The Bronzeville resident couldn’t recall a candidate for judge ever knocking on her door but doubted traditional campaigning would help voters be better informed about judicial races.
“The judicial system is a very specific and detailed professional thing, and I don’t know how much utility there is in trying to translate something so detailed to a mass audience,” Kenner said. A typical voter probably couldn’t be persuaded to be more engaged on judicial races “until you have a significant interaction — positive or negative — (with a judge),” she said. “That’s usually when one is motivated to get over that hump of too-busy indifference about it.”