New class of Cook County associate judges more racially diverse than past years

Illustration by Melissa Fernandez for Injustice Watch.

Cook County’s circuit judges have selected a group of new associate judges to join them on the bench — and this class is more racially diverse than previous cohorts.

Twelve of the 22 new associate judges announced Thursday are people of color, according to Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans’ office, and the group is evenly split between women and men.

That’s a big shift from the past two associate judges elections. In 2018, only one of the 17 candidates selected to serve as an associate judge was Black. In 2019, one-third of the new associate judges were people of color, but no Latinx judges were selected. This year’s group includes at least six Black judges, four Latinx judges, and two Asian judges, according to Injustice Watch reporting.

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However, the new class is much less diverse when it comes to professional backgrounds. More than half of the new associate judges are current or former prosecutors, while just two have experience as public defenders.

The group also includes attorneys who have worked for the city, state agencies, and in private practice, including one new judge who has defended Chicago police officers accused of misconduct.

The new associate judges will be sworn in Oct. 4.

More than 200 candidates applied to become associate judges this year, and a selection committee headed by Evans announced 44 finalists in August. The county’s 249 circuit judges, who are elected by the public, voted by mail-in ballot. The Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, which certifies the elections, announced the winners last week but didn’t release the vote tallies.

Associate judges share nearly the same responsibilities as circuit judges, but they earn slightly lower salaries, can’t vote in internal court elections for the county’s chief judge or associate judges, and must get permission from the chief judge to take on a felony trial.

Diversifying the bench

Judges have wide-ranging powers to interpret and enforce the law, and research shows that a judge’s background — including their race, ethnicity, gender, and professional experience — can have a measurable impact on how they rule.

“Black and brown communities are disproportionately impacted by the court system, particularly in the criminal court system,” said a spokesperson for the Black Women Lawyers’ Association of Greater Chicago, one of several legal groups that screen associate judge candidates. “Therefore, it is critically important to ensure that we have diverse judges who represent those communities,” the spokesperson said.

After just one Black associate judge was selected in 2018, the BWLA and the Cook County Bar Association argued that qualified candidates of color were being overlooked by the county’s mostly white circuit court judges. Evans put out a statement saying “the concept of justice requires” a more diverse bench, and pledging to push for qualified judges who better reflected the county’s diversity.

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Despite the more diverse makeup of this year’s associate judges cohort, the Cook County Circuit Court still has a long way to go to match the county’s population. About two-thirds of sitting judges are white, 20% are Black, 9% are Latinx, and 3% are Asian, according to data provided by Evans’ office. The county’s population, on the other hand, is about 40% white, one-quarter Black, one-quarter Latinx, and 8% Asian.

Saranya Raghavan, president of the South Asian Bar Association of Chicago, said it’s often an uphill battle to get enough circuit judges to support an associate judge candidate of color. The group’s members wrote letters of recommendation for several candidates this year, she said, including Assistant U.S. Attorney Ankur Srivastava, one of the two Asian-American candidates who made it onto the bench.

“It just takes so much more effort to get someone who is from a diverse background elected, it seems, than someone who is not,” Raghavan said. “I think it would behoove us to look into why that’s the case.”

Proponents of the associate judges selection process argue that it more closely resembles a merit-based system than the partisan public elections for circuit judges. Research shows that campaign donations, party politics, and ethnic prejudice have heavily influenced those elections, primarily benefiting white candidates in Cook County with political connections and Irish-sounding names.

But the associate judges selection process can’t easily overcome the structural and pipeline issues that have kept the judiciary — and the legal profession — disproportionately white and affluent.

From 2014 to 2019, about 20% of the associate judges who won a seat lived in the 8th judicial subcircuit, which covers the affluent and predominantly white neighborhoods of the Loop and Lincoln Park, according to data collected by Cook County Circuit Judge Robert Balanoff.

Over the same period, less than 2% of new associate judges hailed from the 1st judicial subcircuit, which includes the predominantly Black and working-class communities of Chatham and South Chicago.

Balanoff, who presides over the court’s child protection division, has proposed an amendment to the Illinois Supreme Court rules that would require circuit court judges to select associate judges from all the county’s 15 geographic subcircuits. Such a system would help ensure a more diverse slate of associate judges, Balanoff said.

“I believe that when people walk into the courthouse, what they see on the bench should be a reflection of the city they live in or the county they live in,” Balanoff told Injustice Watch. The Illinois Supreme Court has not yet made a decision on his proposal.

Prosecutor-to-judge pipeline

More than half of the new associate judges followed the well-traveled path from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office to the judge’s chambers.

Fourteen of the 22 new associate judges are current or former Cook County prosecutors. Just two are former public defenders. And one of them, Maryam Ahmad, joins the bench from her current post as the chief of the state’s attorney’s office’s juvenile justice bureau.

Circuit Judge Grace Dickler, who presides over the court’s domestic relations division and sat on the committee that screened the applicants for associate judge, said the circuit judges try to make sure that the associate judges they pick “are going to be fair no matter what their background.”

But research shows that a judge’s professional background may influence their judicial decisions. A recent study of federal judges appointed by former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump found that those who were former prosecutors or corporate attorneys were less likely to rule in favor of employees who sued their employers than those with public interest or other professional backgrounds.

The study’s author, Emory University School of Law professor Joanna Shepherd, wrote that a judge’s professional experience “will inevitably exert some influence” on how a judge determines which arguments that they find convincing or which witnesses they find credible.

Ahmad — one of three Black women in this year’s associate judges cohort — was an assistant public defender from 2004 to 2007, when she left the Cook County public defender’s office to become a prosecutor.

Associate judge Maryam Ahmad smiles at the camera

Courtesy of Maryam Ahmad

Maryam Ahmad is one of 22 new Cook County associate judges selected in Sept. 2021.

She said she thought her experience as a public defender was important when she switched to the other side of the courtroom.

“I spent days and days in the lockups at 26th Street,” she said, referring to Cook County’s main criminal courthouse. “I understand what custody does to folks, I understand what it does to families, and you want people on the prosecution side who understand those issues.”

Ahmad is also one of five incoming associate judges who were previously appointed to the bench by the Illinois Supreme Court but lost their seats in primary elections. The Illinois Supreme Court appointed her to the bench in 2014, but she lost in the 2016 Democratic primary and waged an unsuccessful write-in campaign in the general election that fall.

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The other former public defender is Carl Evans Jr., who is now an attorney in private practice.

Six other current assistant state’s attorneys were selected as associate judges, including Martha-Victoria Jimenez, a supervisor for the office’s civil actions bureau, and Barbara Lynette Dawkins. Dawkins, who has been an assistant state’s attorney for nearly two decades, also serves as a village trustee for south suburban Homewood.

Seven former prosecutors were also chosen, including William Fahy, who has defended numerous Chicago police officers accused of excessive force and other misconduct since leaving the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office in 2000. One of those officers was Thomas Gaffney, who was among the first officers to encounter 17-year-old Laquan McDonald the night that former police officer Jason Van Dyke killed him in October 2014.

Gaffney was charged with official misconduct, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice for allegedly falsifying police reports from the scene, but a judge found him not guilty of all charges in 2019.

Fahy also represented former Chicago cop Janet Mondragon, one of four officers the Chicago Police Board fired for allegedly filing or approving false police reports related to McDonald’s murder. Fahy could not be reached for comment.

Below is a full list of the 22 new associate judges, with biographical information provided by the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts:

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed the number of new associate judges with experience in the Cook County Public Defender’s Office. There are two former public defenders, not one.

Maryam Ahmad

Resident: Chicago
Age: 57
Admitted to the Bar: 2000
Law School: DePaul University College of Law
Current Affiliation: Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office

Lloyd James Brooks

Resident: Homewood, Illinois
Age: 50
Admitted to the Bar: 2000
Law School: Northwestern University School of Law
Current Affiliation: The Brooks Law Firm

Barbara Lynette Dawkins

Resident: Homewood, Illinois
Age: 49
Admitted to the Bar: 1998
Law School: Vanderbilt University
Current Affiliation: Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office

James Thomas Derico Jr.

Resident: Chicago
Age: 61
Admitted to the Bar: 1985
Law School: University of Pennsylvania Law School
Current Affiliation: Derico & Associates

Sabra Lynne Ebersole

Resident: River Forest, Illinois
Age: 54
Admitted to the Bar: 1993
Law School: DePaul University College of Law
Current Affiliation: Law Office of Sabra Ebersole

Carl Lauras Evans Jr.

Resident: Tinley Park, Illinois
Age: 55
Admitted to the Bar: 1993
Law School: The John Marshall Law School
Current Affiliation: Law Offices of Carl Evans Jr.

William Nicholas Fahy

Resident: Chicago
Age: 58
Admitted to the Bar: 1990
Law School: The John Marshall Law School
Current Affiliation: Law Office of William N. Fahy

Barbara Nubia Flores

Resident: Chicago
Age: 44
Admitted to the Bar: 2004
Law School: Illinois Institute of Technology’s Chicago-Kent College of Law
Current Affiliation: Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission

Mitchell Benjamin Goldberg

Resident: Chicago
Age: 47
Admitted to the Bar: 1999
Law School: DePaul University College of Law
Current Affiliation: Lawrence Kamin

Jasmine Villaflor Hernandez

Resident: Chicago
Age: 41
Admitted to the Bar: 2008
Law School: University of Illinois College of Law
Current Affiliation: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Matthew William Jannusch

Resident: Chicago
Age: 46
Admitted to the Bar: 2001
Law School: Northern Illinois University College of Law
Current Affiliation: Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office

Martha-Victoria Jimenez

Resident: Chicago
Age: 46
Admitted to the Bar: 2002
Law School: University of Illinois College of Law
Current Affiliation: Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office

Diana Elena Lopez

Resident: Chicago
Age: 46
Admitted to the Bar: 2001
Law School: Loyola University Chicago School of Law
Current Affiliation: Lopez Law Group

Kerrie Elizabeth Maloney Laytin

Resident: Chicago
Age: 50
Admitted to the Bar: 1998
Law School: Columbia Law School
Current Affiliation: Illinois Human Rights Commission

Thomas A. Morrissey

Resident: Riverside, Illinois
Age: 62
Admitted to the Bar: 1985
Law School: DePaul University College of Law
Current Affiliation: Law Offices of Thomas A. Morrissey

James Bryan Novy

Resident: Chicago
Age: 51
Admitted to the Bar: 1997
Law School: Northern Illinois University College of Law
Current Affiliation: Rock Fusco & Connelly

Eric Michael Sauceda

Resident: Bartlett, Illinois
Age: 48
Admitted to the Bar: 1999
Law School: University of Illinois College of Law
Current Affiliation: Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office

Theresa Marie Smith Conyers

Resident: Chicago
Age: 49
Admitted to the Bar: 1999
Law School: University of Illinois College of Law
Current Affiliation: City of Chicago Law Department

Ankur Srivastava

Resident: Glenview, Illinois
Age: 41
Admitted to the Bar: 2005
Law School: Yale Law School
Current Affiliation: U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois

Pamela J. Stratigakis

Resident: Chicago
Age: 45
Admitted to the Bar: 2001
Law School: DePaul University College of Law
Current Affiliation: Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard and Smith

Anthony Charles Swanagan

Resident: Flossmoor, Illinois
Age: 61
Admitted to the Bar: 1987
Law School: University of Chicago Law School
Current Affiliation: Illinois Attorney General’s Office

Andreana Ann Turano

Resident: Northfield, Illinois
Age: 54
Admitted to the Bar: 1993
Law School: The John Marshall Law School
Current Affiliation: Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office

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