Five things to know about this year’s bar association ratings

A third of the 117 judicial candidates on the March 17 Cook County primary ballot have received at least one negative rating from the three major bar associations. Here’s what that means.

What are bar association ratings?

Each election cycle, bar associations — professional associations for attorneys and judges — conduct evaluations of judicial candidates to give voters a sense of their qualifications and experience. In Cook County, the evaluations comes from three general interest bar associations — the Chicago Bar Association, the Chicago Council of Lawyers and the Illinois State Bar Association — and also from ten “affinity” groups, such as the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois, the Hellenic Bar Association, and the Lesbian and Gay Bar Association of Chicago. We’re focusing on the general interest bar associations.

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The bar associations conduct thorough reviews of candidates’ past experience, solicit input from attorneys and judges who have worked with them, and invite candidates in for an interview about their records. Then, they issue recommendations based on their findings.

“I do think, while it’s not perfect, the judicial evaluations done by the bar associations are really the best metric that voters have to go on,” said David Baltmanis, president of the Chicago Council of Lawyers.

Not everyone participates in the ratings process

A dozen candidates did not participate in the bar associations’ evaluation process, a decision that results in automatic across-the-board “Not Recommended” ratings.

“There are still a fair number of candidates who are trying to run as stealth candidates without subjecting themselves to the evaluations of the bar associations,” said Malcolm Rich, executive director of the Chicago Council of Lawyers.

One of those candidates is Krista Butler. But because she is running unopposed in her race for the Brooks vacancy in the 1st subcircuit, she is guaranteed the seat anyway. Butler did not respond to a request for comment.

Other candidates likely skipped the evaluations because they knew they would get negative ratings for their relative lack of experience. Most of the bar associations will automatically rate a candidate “Not Recommended” for any judicial position if they have less than a decade of experience as an attorney.

Liam Kelly, who was admitted to the bar in 2011 and is running for the O’Brien vacancy in the 10th subcircuit, said he didn’t participate in the ratings process because it “unfairly penalizes young qualified judicial candidates.”

“I could sit at home and do nothing for the next two years and the Alliance [of] Bar Associations would be practically obligated to rate me qualified based upon my accomplishments and my sterling reputation among my colleagues,” Kelly wrote in an email.

Why do candidates get negative ratings?

The primary reason for a negative rating is a lack of experience as an attorney, practicing in a courtroom, or handling complex cases.

So it’s no surprise that Supreme Court candidate Daniel Epstein received unanimous “Not Recommended” ratings, given that he has just four years of legal experience and is vying for a seat on the state’s highest court.

Epstein said he submitted to the process to raise awareness that a candidate’s years of experience aren’t always a reflection of their abilities.

O'Leary Shaw Silverstein Epstein

Judicial candidates Maureen O’Leary, Anne Shaw, Ira Silverstein and Daniel Epstein received negative ratings from all three general bar groups after submitting for evaluation.

“I view the 10-year rule as a bad rule. I didn’t want to make it easy for folks to just apply it,” he said. “I wanted to kind of be a leader in showing this is something people shouldn’t be afraid of.”

Other candidates got negative ratings based on concerns about their temperament, past behavior or other controversies.

Former state senator Ira I. Silverstein received nearly all negative ratings, with the associations highlighting the sexual harassment complaint against him while in office and the inspector general’s finding that he behaved “in a manner unbecoming of a legislator.”

Silverstein noted that he was cleared of the harassment charges and felt the associations may be biased against candidates who aren’t actively involved with them.

“If you’re active in the bar associations, often you get good ratings. If you’re not, I don’t know,” he said.

Appellate Court candidate Maureen O’Leary, who has been almost entirely absent from the race, was given negative ratings by nearly every association.

“The Council is concerned that Ms. O’Leary is running for the Illinois Appellate Court, and lacks both litigation experience in complex matters and demonstrated substantial published writing,” the Chicago Council of Lawyers wrote.

O’Leary did not respond to a request for comment.

What happens if a candidate receives negative ratings?

It depends on the race.

Subcircuit candidates Perla Tirado and Anne Shaw both received multiple negative ratings. But the ratings are likely to affect Shaw much more than Tirado, political consultant Frank Calabrese said.

Tirado, who is Hispanic, is up against just one opponent, Judge Daniel Tiernan, a white man who was appointed by Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke to his current seat in the 14th subcircuit on the southwest side of Chicago.

Local Hispanic officials criticized the appointment, pointing out that the subcircuit’s intent was to add more diversity to the bench.

So even though Tiernan received positive ratings from every bar association and Tirado was cited for lacking “the depth and breadth of practice experience to effectively serve as a Circuit Court Judge,” according to the Chicago Bar Association, Tirado remains the pick to win.

“If you’re Perla Tirado and you’re running on the southwest side of Chicago and your message is that you’re endorsed by [U.S. Rep.] Chuy Garcia and your opponent is a white man and you’re a Hispanic woman, you’re probably going to win,” Calabrese said.

Tirado expressed disappointment in the negative bar ratings in an email.

“I am very proud of my background and varied experience and do feel that I am more than qualified to serve on the bench,” Tirado wrote. Tiernan did not respond to a request for comment.

Civil rights attorney Anne Shaw, on the other hand, faces much tougher odds in the 6th subcircuit race against assistant state’s attorney Jamie Guerra Dickler, who received universally positive reviews. Shaw was criticized for a lack of complex experience, temperament, and “her role in questionable real estate matters” involving her family’s company. The Women’s Bar Association of Illinois changed its rating of Shaw from “Recommended,” which it gave in November, to “Not Recommended,” after Injustice Watch’s reporting. Shaw declined to comment.

“It’s hard to argue why her over Jamie Dickler,” Calabrese said.

Dickler felt that bar ratings matter to the 6th subcircuit’s voters.

“I think that voters in the 6th subcircuit tend to be educated voters. A lot do research on the judicial candidates,” she said.

Shaw is one of only four candidates who participated in evaluations but received all or nearly all negative reviews from the 12 bar associations.

”I don’t necessarily want to tell the voters how they should think about it, but it is a highly significant data point,” Baltmanis said of these candidates’ negative ratings.

Who got the highest ratings?

Appellate Judge Michael Hyman is the only candidate in that race to receive unanimously positive ratings, including the Council’s only “Highly Qualified” rating, its top recommendation.

“Justice Hyman is considered to have excellent legal ability and is reported to be always prepared,” the Council wrote.

Hyman called the Chicago Council of Lawyers’ rating the “gold standard” among the 12 associations.

“They are known by the judges and the bars to be the most thorough and incisive evaluators,” he said.

Hyman is one of just a handful of candidates who received “Well Qualified” or “Highly Qualified” ratings from all three general-interest bar associations. The others are Supreme Court Justice P. Scott Neville, Jr. and Appellate Judge Margaret S. McBride in the Supreme Court race, Appellate Judge John Griffin, and attorney Russell W. Hartigan.

Malcolm Rich encouraged members of the public to take even a half hour to review the available information on the candidates they will be voting for.

“Judges are really on the forefront of protecting our democracy,” he said.