Everything you need to know about Cook County judicial elections

A hand holds a judicial eletcion ballot with question marks around it

In the voting booth, after marking their choices for governor, president, senators, and state reps, Cook County voters face the longest part of the ballot: circuit court judges. Voter participation on this part of the ballot drops off steeply, with about one-quarter of voters not making judicial picks.

Though the candidates running for judge may be the most obscure, judges are the elected officials any voter is most likely to encounter and the ones whose decisions can have the most direct impact on their life. Anytime you get divorced, dispute a speeding ticket, settle a deceased loved one’s estate, lose a home through eviction or foreclosure, sue for damages after a car accident, or face accusations of committing a crime, a judge is involved. There are about 400 judges in the Circuit Court of Cook County, presiding over everything from marriages to murder trials. Two-thirds of them are elected.

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Ahead of the 2022 elections, Injustice Watch and WBEZ’s Curious City are teaming up to answer your questions about judicial elections and why they matter. This explainer will guide you through the basics. But we want to hear from you. After reading this explainer, ask us anything you’d like to know to help you become a more informed judicial voter this year.

Can anyone run for judge in Cook County?

A checklist with the requirements to run for judge in Cook County

Any attorney who is at least 21 years old, licensed to practice in Illinois, a U.S. citizen, registered to vote, and resides in the county or subcircuit (more on that later) can run for a vacant judicial seat. However, candidates can never run against an incumbent judge.

Unlike other elected officials, judges in Illinois don’t have to defend themselves against challengers at the end of their six-year terms. Instead, they go up for “retention” on the general election ballot. Voters choose yes or no to keeping each judge on the bench, and the judge has to get 60% yes votes to stay. There are no term limits.

If a sitting judge is not retained (which is exceedingly rare), or retires, resigns, or dies, their seat is filled by the Illinois Supreme Court until the next election. Though multiple candidates often run for the vacant seat, those appointed to fill vacancies often have a leg up when the election comes around because they can say they’re already doing the job.

How do judicial subcircuits work?

About a third of Cook County circuit judges are elected countywide. The other two thirds of judicial seats are distributed between 15 geographic subcircuits. The subcircuits were first drawn in 1991 to give more opportunities for judges of color and Republicans to get on the bench.

When one of the subcircuit seats becomes open, only candidates who live in that subcircuit can run and only voters who live there can vote for them. Once elected, all judges run for retention on countywide ballots.

Starting in 2024, Cook County will have 20 subcircuits instead of 15. The map was redrawn this year to reflect population shifts in the county and give more communities of color access to subcircuit representation. You can read more about what this redistricting will mean for future elections here.

Why are these elections partisan? Aren’t judges supposed to be neutral?

Two gavels side by side, one blue and one red

Illinois is one of just nine states in which circuit court-level judicial candidates run for their first term in partisan elections and one of eight states using the retention voting method when sitting judges run for re-election. Judges in Illinois have been chosen through partisan elections since 1848. The last attempt to change that, during the 1970 Constitutional Convention, failed when voters in a statewide referendum chose by a slim margin to keep the partisan election system over creating a merit-based selection process.

Major party affiliation isn’t required to run for judge, but in Cook County, where the Democratic Party has historically dominated elections, being a Democrat has helped most judges get on the bench. The Democratic Party plays a big role in countywide judicial elections by endorsing candidates, collecting petition signatures for their entire judicial slate in bulk, and providing attorneys and campaign support to make sure their chosen candidates stay on the ballot and get retained.

The Democratic Party currently doesn’t endorse candidates in subcircuit judicial primaries, but individual aldermen, committeeman, and other party members with sway in their communities do, helping their chosen candidates collect signatures and distribute campaign materials. With the exception of a couple of subcircuits in the north and northwest suburbs that have larger Republican electorates, the winner of the Democratic primary usually runs unopposed in the fall general election.

How do I know if a judge I elect will represent my values?

Candidates for judge have to follow special campaign rules that don’t apply to people running for other elected offices. This can make it difficult to determine what they believe.

Illinois’ Code of Judicial Conduct applies both to sitting judges and to lawyers seeking election for the first time and prohibits “inappropriate political activity.” This includes things common to other political races, like attack ads, as well as sharing opinions about “cases, controversies, or issues within cases that are likely to come before the court.” This means candidates aren’t allowed to answer questions such as “How do you feel about police brutality?” or “Are you pro-life or pro-choice?” because at some point they may have to rule on a case in which the issue is being disputed.

Judicial candidates may answer broad questions that probe their awareness of problems within the court system. For example, it’s acceptable to speak about biases faced by domestic violence survivors, racially disparate criminal sentencing trends, or a lack of free legal resources for low-income litigants in civil courtrooms. But most candidates shy away even from general comments about these issues while campaigning.

Because of the rules restricting what judicial candidates and judges can say, the best way to know whether they align with your views can be to look at what they’ve dedicated themselves to as lawyers and community members. The Injustice Watch judicial election guide includes such information.

Are the ratings and evaluations of bar associations a good way to gauge judicial candidates?

A range of lawyers’ groups called bar associations conduct interviews with judicial candidates, investigate their backgrounds, and publish ratings of their qualifications for the bench. But the bar groups tend to heavily weigh lawyers’ perspectives on the candidates. Their evaluations focus primarily on candidates’ knowledge of the law and temperament, which aren’t always the best way to gauge someone’s fairness or biases.

Historically, bar associations haven’t interviewed clients about their experiences with judicial candidates who might have represented them or sitting judges who presided over their cases. At least one group, the Chicago Council of Lawyers, has begun to do this in recent years. They are now soliciting input from the public about the judges running for retention in 2022 and are planning to do the same for attorneys running for the first time after candidates file to get on the ballot in March.

When I elect a judge, do I get to choose what type of cases they will hear?

No. All new judges must go through “judge school” training and are first assigned to high-volume but relatively simple duties, such as traffic court and marriages. From there, the chief judge and presiding judges of the courts’ divisions will reassign judges based on their interests and competence.

Is there a lot of money involved in judicial elections?

Coins and dollar bills

Candidates for circuit court judge are often self-funded and receive the lion’s share of donations from friends and family. Candidates running for judge aren’t allowed to solicit money directly, but their campaign committees can collect donations on their behalf. Political consultants who work with judicial candidates for countywide and subcircuit races typically advise them to raise at least $100,000 to pay for petition signature collection (which now runs about $5 per signature), attorneys to fight ballot challenges, and advertising. Campaigns for the more rare appellate or supreme court vacancies can be much more expensive.

The Cook County Democratic Party requires all candidates they endorse for countywide seats to contribute $40,000 to the party pool, which is used for the benefit of everyone the party endorses in a given election cycle.

Last year, the Illinois legislature created new campaign finance rules for judicial candidates, including a ban on out-of-state donations and donations from groups that don’t disclose their funders (also known as “dark money”).

This story was produced in collaboration with WBEZ’s Curious City.

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