Illinois legislature creates five new judicial subcircuits in Cook County to further diversify the bench

A map showing the 20 new judicial subcircuits in Cook County

The new Cook County judicial subcircuit map, signed into law Jan. 7, adds five new subcircuits, for a total of 20. It will go into effect for the 2024 judicial elections.

For the first time in 30 years the map of Cook County’s judicial subcircuits has been redrawn, with the goal of further diversifying the ranks of judges and making it easier for people with less funding and political clout to run for the bench.

The Judicial Circuits Districting Act of 2022, which Illinois legislators pushed through the General Assembly last week and Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law Friday, increases the number of subcircuits in Cook County from 15 to 20 and requires their boundaries to be redrawn based on Census data every 10 years.

The law won’t go into effect for this year’s elections, but could change the way judicial elections are run in Cook County for years to come.

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About two-thirds of Cook County circuit judges are currently elected from subcircuits, while the others are elected countywide. Candidates for subcircuit races must live in the subcircuit and collect just 667 nominating petition signatures to get on the ballot (compared with more than 2,500 for countywide races), which make these races more accessible to independent, grassroots candidates who don’t have the backing of the Democratic Party. Once elected, being a countywide or subcircuit candidate has no bearing on a judge’s assignment or duties.

Judicial subcircuits were first drawn by state lawmakers in 1991 in response to complaints from Republicans and Black and Latinx communities that the judiciary was not sufficiently representative. In the years since, the number of judges of color in Cook County has increased somewhat, but the bench is still disproportionately white and male compared with the county population. As of May 2021, 71% of sitting elected judges were white, according to data from the Office of the Chief Judge, while the county’s population is less than half white, according to the 2020 Census.

Research shows that even when judicial diversity doesn’t result in differences in the application or interpretation of the law, the presence of diverse judges creates more public trust in the court system. Having judges who reflect the demographics of a community prevents the biases of one group from unfairly predominating in the courts.

Cook County Circuit Judge Robert Balanoff, who has publicly called for more diversity on the bench, said a great deal of personal bias is involved in his and his colleagues’ work.

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Graph showing Cook County judicial diversity over time

Cook County judiciary increasingly diverse; but whites, males still dominate

Court data since 2001 shows the growing diversity on the bench. In recent years the percentage of African Americans has leveled off, but percentage of Hispanics, Asian-American judges has jumped.

“(Judges) bring to the bench their prejudices, their stereotypes, their upbringing, and their education,” said Balanoff, who was elected from the 1st subcircuit in 2004.

But in the three decades since the subcircuits were created, population shifts have changed the racial and ethnic makeup of the county and the populations of the subcircuits became unbalanced. Some of the subcircuits were no longer representative of the communities they were designed to serve. For example, the 6th subcircuit on Chicago’s northwest side — originally drawn to be one of two majority-Latinx districts — now has a majority-white voting population, according to a data analysis presented to the state legislature by political consultant Frank Calabrese. Meanwhile, the latest Census data shows that more than a quarter of the county is now Latinx.

The new map for Cook County includes five majority-Black subcircuits (up from four), four majority-Latinx subcircuits (up from one), and four subcircuits where Asians are the largest non-white ethnic group. The subcircuits now have a more even population of about 264,000 each.

Young Woon Han, an organizer with the HANA Center, an immigrant rights advocacy organization that represents Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, said the new map will “translate to more representation on the bench” for Asian Americans.

“There’s a unique lived experience as an Asian American immigrant,” Han said. “A judge who looks like us may have a better understanding and bring a new perspective to how to interpret the law.”

But not everyone feels that the new map provides sufficient political representation to their community.

“We are a little disappointed. We would have liked to have seen more of an attempt to accommodate keeping the (Orthodox Jewish) community together,” said Rabbi Shlomo Soroka, a lobbyist for Agudath Israel of Illinois. Soroka was among several advocates who had asked the redistricting committee for the Orthodox Jewish community spanning Skokie, Lincolnwood, and West Ridge in Chicago be included in one subcircuit. In the final map, the community is split between the 9th and 10th subcircuits.

Other critics said the Democratic supermajorities in the House and Senate rushed the subcircuit redistricting process, to the detriment of transparency and public input. The first draft of the new subcircuit maps bill (for Cook County and eight additional circuit courts across the state) was rolled out on Jan. 3, with the final version following two days after. Democrats passed the 389-page bill in both chambers after 9 p.m. on Jan. 5 as an amendment to an unrelated piece of legislation that had sailed through bipartisan committee approvals months earlier.

Republican Rep. Tim Butler, the minority leader on the House redistricting committee, slammed Democrats for drawing up the new maps from behind closed doors and said the maps would have benefitted from more time.

“We’d have a really good opportunity to evaluate this better, and listen to the concerns expressed, especially in Chicago, about how this impacts communities,” said Butler, whose 87th district sits between Springfield and Peoria. “As is often the case in redistricting, there’s hardly any time to review this massive bill.”

In the final days of last year’s legislative session, lawmakers had extended their own deadline for subcircuit redistricting through 2022. But Senate President Don Harmon (D-Oak Park), who sponsored the bill in that chamber, defended the swift subcircuit redraw by saying that the legislature was already behind schedule with redistricting.

“We had hoped to redistrict subcircuits in time for the 2022 election but in a concession to reality we pushed back most of these changes to the 2024 election,” he told Injustice Watch. He would not say who was involved in actually drawing the new maps or how decisions were made about exact subcircuit boundaries, citing concerns about possible pending lawsuits over the new subcircuit maps.

New subcircuits may cost Cook County Democrats

The rush to approve the subcircuit remap has left open questions about how the five new subcircuits will be filled with judges.

The law states that starting in June, the next 55 vacancies arising in Cook County’s countywide judicial positions are to be reassigned to the new subcircuits until each subcircuit has 11 judges. Currently, 97 judges are elected for countywide judicial seats, while 164 are elected from the 15 existing subcircuits. (There are also 125 associate judges who are selected by the circuit judges.)

When the original 15 subcircuits were drawn, 30 new judgeships were created, with two seats assigned to each of the subcircuits. Some associate judgeships were converted to elected seats in subcircuits too. The rest were reassigned to subcircuits over time as seats held by judges previously elected as Chicago or suburban Cook County residents were vacated.

The new law, however, doesn’t create any new judgeships or convert associate judge positions to elected seats. That would mean a vastly reduced number of countywide judicial seats in future years.

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Five people in business attire, two seated, three standing, in front of a grey wall.

Democrats endorsed for Cook County judge are diverse, experienced — and loyal

Cook County Democrats slated 10 candidates and 12 alternates for judicial seats for the 2022 primary election.

That’s good news for outsiders and independents who want to run for judge, but could spell financial disaster for the Cook County Democratic Party.

The party makes endorsements and helps candidates run for countywide judicial seats in return for a $40,000 contribution to the party’s election coffers. This money is used for campaign operations, attorneys, mailers, and get-out-the-vote efforts for all of the party’s candidates in an election cycle. With approximately eight to 12 countywide vacancies each election cycle, the party’s slated judicial candidates can bring in close to $500,000, which accounts for half of the all the funds the party uses each election cycle, according to Cook County Democratic Party Executive Director Jacob Kaplan.

But the party doesn’t make endorsements or fund races in subcircuits. If the next 55 countywide vacancies are turned into subcircuit vacancies, it could mean more than a decade of lost campaign revenue for the party.

Harmon, who is also the Oak Park Township Democratic committeeperson and the chair of the party’s circuit court selection committee, said the intent of the law was “for some but not all (countywide) judicial vacancies to be allocated to the new subcircuits. If people are reading the law differently we are happy to revisit it.”

Other judicial election observers and political insiders said the law is unambiguous in the method of filling the new subcircuits. But there is still plenty of time for state legislators — many of whom are in charge of important caucuses and committees in Springfield and also within the Cook County Democratic Party — to amend this part of the law, which doesn’t go into effect until June. Harmon said that lawmakers have no intention of creating new judicial seats in Cook County, but wouldn’t say how else the new subcircuits could be populated with seats if not in the way the law currently states.

“We’re reviewing the bill,” Kaplan told Injustice Watch last week, but wouldn’t comment further. “It’s all too soon.”

He also wouldn’t say whether the party might start endorsing candidates (and collecting contributions) in subcircuit races if the law stays as written. “That’s something party leadership would have to decide.”

Explore the new judicial subcircuits using the interactive map below.

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