Cook County Democrats drop two judges from retention endorsement

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Updated 2:15 p.m. with a statement from Judge Michael Toomin.

The Cook County Democratic Committee voted Monday not to endorse two judges running for retention in November, Michael Toomin and Mauricio Araujo.

Toomin, the presiding judge of the juvenile justice division, recently came under fire for making it harder for juveniles seeking release from detention during the coronavirus pandemic. Araujo is currently on administrative duty, pending a disciplinary hearing into accusations of sexual harassment.

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The Democratic Party’s move not to endorse the two is a rare rebuke of sitting judges seeking six more years on the bench and could dampen Toomin and Araujo’s prospects at the ballot box. During the last retention election, in 2018, the Democratic Party dropped Judge Matthew Coghlan from their endorsement in the face of Injustice Watch reporting about his alleged involvement in wrongful convictions and a grassroots campaign to “Dump Coghlan.” He went on to become the first Cook County judge in 28 years to lose his race for retention.

Before the last election, the Democratic Party had encouraged voters to vote for the entire slate of judges running for retention. Circuit Court judges run for retention every six years and must garner 60 percent “yes” votes to keep their seats.

But at a meeting Monday, the Cook County Democratic Committee voted unanimously not to endorse Araujo, and all but two committeemen voted not to endorse Toomin, according to the political news site The Daily Line. Aldermen Tom Tunney (44th) and Brendan Reilly (45th) both voted against the non-endorsement. Tunney and Reilly did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A spokesperson for Toomin alleged in an emailed statement that the party’s vote was retaliation for the judge’s appointment of special prosecutor Dan Webb, who has criticized how Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office handled the case against former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett.

“I am extremely disappointed by the party’s decision to single me out as I seek retention on the November 3rd ballot for reasons that clash with the widely accepted virtues of judicial independence,” Toomin said in the statement. “I’ve taken great pride in earning the respect of my colleagues, the legal community as well as the citizens of cook county.”

Political consultant and 40th Ward Committeewoman Maggie O’Keefe said newer commiteepeople like herself who are not “lock and step with the party” paved the way for a more critical look at judges running for retention.

“I’m really proud of the party for even being open to not retaining judges,” O’Keefe said in an interview with Injustice Watch after the vote. “The party has spent years not vetting and just overall retaining judges, so I think it’s really important to recognize that we’re going into this election with two no votes on retention for judges.”

Araujo was placed on leave in 2018 after an assistant Cook County state’s attorney accused him of sexual harassment. Two other women, a Chicago police officer and a court reporter, have since come forward saying he harassed them, too. Araujo declined to comment.

Toomin was first appointed to the bench in 1980, making him one of the circuit court’s longest-serving sitting judges. He has presided over several high-profile cases that have put him at odds with the party establishment, including the manslaughter case against former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s nephew, R.J. Vanecko, in the death of David Koschman, and the ongoing case against Smollett.

Sun-Times file

Judge Michael Toomin speaks following the swearing in of former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb during a status hearing concerning actor Jussie Smollett at the Leighton Criminal Court building, Friday, Aug. 23, 2019.

He has also been part of an investment club with indicted alderman and longtime Democratic powerbroker Ed Burke, Injustice Watch reported last week.

Recently, Toomin has come under fire for what some see as an overly punitive approach to juvenile justice. Last year he ruled that an ordinance passed unanimously by the Cook County Board of Commissioners banning the detention of youth under 13 was invalid because it conflicted with Illinois law. His ruling was upheld on appeal.

Earlier this year, Toomin was criticized for blocking a key legal protection for detained youth in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, leading Chief Judge Timothy Evans to clarify his coronavirus general order.

“I believe Judge Toomin is one of the judges that truly uphold white supremacy and this punitive system that we have through his actions on the court,” said Ugo Okere, deputy committeeman for the 25th Ward. “He’s fueling this mass incarceration system that puts Black and brown people in jail at disproportionate rates.”

The party voted to endorse all 60 other judges running for retention this year. That includes Jackie Portman-Brown, the only other judge currently on administrative duty, and Megan Goldish, who is being sued by an exoneree for her alleged role as a prosecutor in his wrongful murder conviction.

Three committeemen, John Daley (11th Ward), Anthony Quezada (35th Ward), and Ted Mason (Elk Grove Township), voted against endorsing Portman-Brown, who was placed on administrative duty after video captured her locking a child in the holding cell behind her courtroom.

Eight committeepeople, including Okere and O’Keefe, voted against endorsing the entire judicial retention slate.

“There are additional problematic judges that I think should have been reviewed more thoroughly,” O’Keefe said.