Elected judges are rarely voted out of office. Here’s why.

On this week’s episode of WBEZ’s Curious City podcast, Injustice Watch senior reporter Maya Dukmasova answers a listener’s question about whether elected judges in Cook County ever get removed from office and if so, how often it happens.

The short answer is: judges don’t get voted out of office very often.

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Even though judges’ decisions can have an impact on just about every aspect of someone’s life, judicial elections tend to be very low-profile, low-information races. As a result, most judges win re-election without even trying. To understand why, we look at the story of two Cook County judges: Matthew Coghlan and Maura Slattery Boyle.

Both Judge Coghlan and Judge Slattery Boyle have made controversial decisions and their rulings have often been reversed by higher courts. But one of them became the first judge in 30 years to be removed from office — while the other is still on the bench.

“The right to have a fair and impartial judge is something that a lot of people don’t know how serious it is,” said Ieliot Jackson in an interview with Injustice Watch in 2020.

In 2010 Judge Slattery Boyle presided over Jackson’s trial. He was accused of selling less than a gram of heroin to an undercover police officer near a school.

A jury convicted Jackson and Slattery Boyle sentenced him to 13 years in prison. But an Appellate Court found Judge Slattery Boyle made several mistakes and sent the case back to her for a new sentence. This time Slattery Boyle added an additional six months in prison.

Jackson spent nearly a decade behind bars before he was exonerated in 2018 after another man admitted to being the one who sold the drugs to the undercover police officer.

In this episode we’ll also hear about the case of Jose Montanez and Armando Serrano, two men who were also exonerated after spending more than 22 years in prison. Both Coghlan and Slattery Boyle were involved in their case.

Because most judges stay on the bench once they’re elected, voters can play an important role in deciding who becomes a judge in the first place.

The Illinois primary is coming up on June 28 and there are 29 open judicial seats on the ballot. Every election cycle, Injustice Watch puts out a thoroughly researched, nonpartisan judicial election guide. It’s free, and you can take it with you into the voting booth. Click here to learn more and sign up for Injustice Watch’s newsletter to get notified when the guide comes out at the end of May.

Click to listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Pocket Casts.

Maya Dukmasova is a senior reporter at Injustice Watch. Follow her on Twitter @mdoukmas. Andrew Meriwether is a journalist living in Chicago. Follow him @ohsomeriwether.

WBEZ’s Curious City is a weekly podcast that answers your questions about Chicago and the region. You can subscribe here.