Why are these judges running for judge?

Associate judges considering the reasons they might run for judge

When Cook County voters head to the polls Tuesday, one of the most daunting choices that they’ll face is who to send to the bench. Voters have 75 judicial candidates to sift through in this year’s primary election — most of them for seats on the Cook County Circuit Court.

There are 26 candidates for 10 vacant circuit court seats whom voters countywide will see on their ballots. Another 43 candidates are running for vacant seats throughout the county’s 15 subcircuits — only voters who live within a subcircuit get to vote on its candidates, who must also reside there. Injustice Watch’s judicial voter guide overviews each candidates’ legal experience, community involvement, donors, political connections, conduct, and controversies.

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Most of the candidates are attorneys seeking a seat in the circuit court for the first time. But some fall into a curious category: sitting judges who are running for judge.

That group includes eight judges temporarily appointed to fill a vacancy on the Illinois Supreme Court. They must now win elections to continue being judges.

And then there are the three current associate judges — Diana López, Charles “Charlie” Beach, and Kerrie Maloney Laytin — who would stay in their present positions, even if they lose their bid to become an elected circuit court judge.

So why would someone who’s already a judge want to run for judge?

Beach, who has been an associate judge since 2018, says he gets that question all the time from voters in the 6th subcircuit, where he’s running unopposed. “Usually it’s like, ‘I thought you’re already a judge, are you not? Why are you running?’ They don’t understand.”

The answer has to do with differences in what the two types of judges in Illinois’ circuit court system are allowed to do, particularly to shape the court system that they work in. Unlike the publicly elected circuit judges, associate judges in Illinois are chosen through a process that happens largely behind closed doors. To become an associate judge, candidates must apply for vacant positions. A committee evaluates these applications and produces a short list of candidates. Finally, the circuit judges vote by secret ballot for the candidates they’d like to become associate judges.

Once on the bench, associate judges serve four-year terms (unlike the circuit judges, who serve six-year terms). There’s another key difference between the two jobs: Only circuit judges can vote for new classes of associate judges and for the chief judge. López and Beach, who spoke with Injustice Watch, cited these as the major reason that they wanted to move from associate to circuit judgeships.

“My personal objective to become a judge was to help shape the judiciary,” said Beach, who lost a run for circuit court in 2018 before being selected as an associate judge that year. While that objective is “not impossible as an associate judge,” Beach said, he wants to have a say in choosing associate judges and the chief judge. “I might be just one vote, but it’s better to have it and exercise it than not have it at all.”

Charles “Charlie” Beach

Beach hadn’t initially planned on running this year, he told Injustice Watch. “The first race was very difficult and very expensive, and it definitely takes a toll on your family.”

But with about three weeks left to circulate petitions last winter, Beach said he learned there were only three people running for the two 6th subcircuit vacancies. “Someone’s unopposed in that scenario, so I decided to run,” he said. His only opponent for the vacancy of Mauricio Araujo withdrew after filing to get on the ballot.

There are some other differences between circuit and associate judgeships. Associate judges cannot become chief judges in Illinois, and they must get approval from the chief judge before getting assigned to hearing felony cases — though this happens routinely in Cook County. And while there’s no state law barring it, in practice, associate judges do not become presiding judges of court divisions in Cook County, according to the Office of the Chief Judge. The Illinois Supreme Court also can’t assign associate judges to fill appellate court vacancies.

Finally, there’s the pay. Currently, the starting base pay for associate judges in Illinois is $205,482, according to the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts. For circuit judges, it’s $216,297.

Some voters speculate that associate judges run for circuit court seats primarily for the raise, but candidates and campaign consultants said the pay difference isn’t a motivating factor — especially once campaign costs are factored in. According to state campaign finance records, López and her husband have so far put in more than $35,000 into her campaign; Beach put in $40,000 toward his run for office. Laytin has donated nearly $15,000 to her campaign.

López, who was sworn in as an associate judge in October, explained that by the time that she was selected for that position, she’d already spent months campaigning and fundraising for a circuit seat run.

Associate Judge Diana López

“I’m not a quitter,” López said with a laugh when asked in a phone interview why she didn’t just throw in the towel on her campaign after becoming an associate judge. “I sat with my husband and parents and daughter, and we decided we’d need to continue the commitment [to running for a circuit judge seat] if I got slated.” In December, the Cook County Democratic Party slated López. “Even though there was a huge financial and time commitment, we decided to move forward,” López said. She faces two primary challengers June 28.

López said the prospect “to help the diversification of the bench” through voting for the chief judge and associate judges and the possibility of eventually becoming presiding judge were her biggest motivations to try for the circuit position. “It does open up career aspirations,” she said.

Judicial campaign consultants who spoke with Injustice Watch said this justification is typical.

“Of the judges I’ve talked to that have gone that route, certainly a strong factor is that folks from minority backgrounds can then have a say in who comes up in the next generation of associate judges,” said Sean Tenner, a consultant who is working with López this cycle. “If someone’s earlier in their career and it looks like they might have 20 to 30 years on bench, I can understand why they’d want to be part of that process.”

According to data that the Office of the Chief Judge provided to Injustice Watch in May 2021, the ranks of associate judges were more diverse than those of elected judges when it came to Latinx and Asian American judges. Asian American judges made up about 7% of associate judges but less than 1% of circuit judges. About a fifth of the judges in both groups were African American. Nearly 50% of the elected Cook County judges were women. But among associate judges, women made up only 43%.

Laytin did not respond to an Injustice Watch request for an interview. But, David Rodriguez, her opponent in the 6th subcircuit race for the Raúl Vega vacancy, did. He said he understood why circuit court seats are appealing to associate judges and doesn’t think that there is anything wrong with them running for an elected position. “To be honest, if I was an associate judge, I may do the same thing,” Rodriguez said.

His biggest qualm, however, isn’t that Laytin is an associate judge. It’s that she’s a white woman running in what was designed to be a predominantly Latinx subcircuit. “It was created as a Latino subcircuit, and even though the population has shifted … I think it should remain a Latino subcircuit,” Rodriguez said. A big reason that he’s running is “to have our judiciary look like the population that it serves.” The Illinois Legislature redrew Cook County’s subcircuits and added five new subcircuits that will go into effect for the 2024 election.

Rodriguez said running against a sitting judge is an “impediment for me as a candidate.” He noted that to an average voter, “if somebody’s already a judge, they’re gonna feel like, ‘Well, they must be better qualified.’”

That speaks to a built-in advantage that associate judges may enjoy while campaigning for circuit court seats: They’re already on the bench. All three of these candidates are running with  “Judge” in front of their names. On his campaign website, Beach notes that since getting on the bench, he has “served in leadership roles, such as supervising judge of the traffic division and chair of the DUI and Traffic Law Committee. He is a frequent writer and lecturer on the law to his fellow judges.”

If a qualified and capable associate judge moves successfully to a circuit judgeship, there’s no obvious loss for the public. If they disappoint, voters will have an opportunity to kick them off the bench every six years. But voters won’t get a say in whoever ends up replacing them in an associate judge position. We’ll have to trust their judgment.

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