A version of this story was published in the Chicago Sun-Times. It was updated (Oct. 14) with a statement from Chief Judge Timothy Evans.
Four Cook County judges who are on the November ballot, running to keep their jobs, have had their rulings reversed on appeal 98 times among them over the past six years — more than three times as often as their colleagues, an Injustice Watch investigation has found.
Margaret Ann Brennan, Patrick J. Sherlock, Kenneth J. Wadas and Anna Helen Demacopoulos are the only judges seeking retention to each have more than a dozen decisions reversed by higher courts in the six years since they were last retained.
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The average number of reversals for the 56 Cook County circuit judges running for retention was four.
A reversal means an appeals court decided a judge was wrong and overturned all or part of a ruling.
“When a judge has a higher reversal rate than normal, it raises a red flag,” says attorney David Melton, former head of the Chicago Council of Lawyers’ judicial evaluation committee.
Only a small fraction of cases get appealed. About one in 10 of those is reversed, according to 2018 Illinois Supreme Court data.
A spokeswoman for the judges disputed some of the reversal numbers and says no conclusions about their ability should be drawn from them.
“Divisions such as domestic relations, traffic, probate, county and misdemeanor are rarely, if ever, appealed,” spokeswoman Hanah Jubeh says.“Comparing judges’ reversals is unfair, challenges the independence of the judiciary and only further discourages judges from taking on difficult assignments in fear of reprisal.”
In a statement, Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans said appellate court decisions are often a matter of “an honest difference of opinion.”
“When voters evaluate a circuit court judge for retention, it is important to keep appeals court decisions in perspective,” he wrote. “Reversals should be considered along with a number of other factors, including appeals affirmed or dismissed, evaluations of judges by their peers in the bar associations, and fact-based media reports.”
Injustice Watch reviewed the reversals of every judge running for retention in Cook County to find that these judges improperly applied the law far more often than their colleagues, in the views of higher courts.
Brennan, a circuit judge since 2002, serves in the law division, where judges hear civil suits with damages of at least $30,000 being sought. She has been reversed 40 times since 2014, records show — far more often than any of her colleagues running for retention.
Nine of her reversals involved errors in issuing summary judgments — a ruling a judge makes for one party in a civil lawsuit, finding the evidence is so clear that the case doesn’t even warrant a full trial. They’re supposed to help judges ensure that only cases with valid claims go to trial.
In one case Brennan heard, the son of a man who died while held at the Cook County Jail sued the lawyers who filed a wrongful-death case against the county, saying they wrongly distributed the $450,000 settlement to his half-brothers and not to him.
Brennan awarded summary judgment to the law firm, ruling that the plaintiff failed to prove he was the dead man’s biological son.
He appealed, and appellate Judge Maureen Connors reversed the decision, citing “the drastic nature of a summary judgment order” and saying Brennan should have allowed the case to go to trial, where paternity evidence could have been presented.
In another, higher-profile case, Brennan reversed a decision in which an administrative law judge had found the Chicago Bears owed Cook County $4.1 million for amusement taxes the team had failed to pay. Brennan’s decision in that case was itself reversed in 2014. The appellate panel agreed with the original finding that the amusement tax applied to the entire ticket price and not just to part of it.
Sherlock, a judge since 2007 who serves in the law division, has been reversed 19 times since 2014. The Illinois Appellate Court often found that he misunderstood or misapplied statutes, records show. It has reversed his judgments, vacated his orders and continued proceedings it found he had wrongly ended.
In one case, after a jury awarded $45,000 to a child injured by a police officer driving to an emergency, the defendants filed a motion asking Sherlock to overrule the jury’s verdict. He denied it, and the appellate court overturned his decision.
“Here, there is simply no evidence other than Officer Kowalski’s speed to support [the child’s] claim, and we simply cannot find that his speed alone may sustain a claim of willful and wanton conduct,” Appellate Justice Thomas E. Hoffman wrote in reversing him.
Two of the other judges were reversed for their decisions in criminal court.
Wadas repeatedly was reversed for disregarding a basic tenet of Illinois criminal law, leading defendants to be saddled with additional convictions and, in some cases, to receive longer sentences.
Many of Demacopolous’ 14 reversals involved improperly dismissing appeals from people serving time in prison. Her reversals large came from her time hearing felony criminal cases at the Markham courthouse. She’s now in the court’s chancery division.
In one case before Demacopoulos, Lavelle Deering, serving a 90-year sentence for a conviction related to a fatal 1994 armed robbery, appealed on the grounds that his lawyer had provided ineffective counsel. Demacopoulos improperly denied his request, an appellate panel found. Instead of sending the case back, the higher court vacated two of Deering’s convictions and reduced his sentence to 75 years.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the reason for one of Judge Sherlock’s reversals. He was reversed for dismissing a motion to overturn the jury’s verdict in a civil trial.
Olivia Louthen and Annabelle Rice contributed reporting.