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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Mysteries Revealed: Becoming a Judge in Cook County

As Democratic Committeeman of the 43rd Ward, one of my duties is to sit on the committee to "slate" judges and county-wide offices - deciding who will get the official endorsement of the party. So I figured I'd better learn what it's all about before the slating session for the February Primary which takes place on September 10th and 11th.

It turns out that becoming a judge is a very complicated process, and not well understood. It took quite a bit of detective work before we could figure it out and explain it here and in the next couple of newsletters. Read on. . . . So you want to be a judge, do you? If you're an attorney in Cook County, there are three ways to get on the bench.

One: You run for election. There are two paths to get elected: one is to run county-wide - there are 98 seated county-wide judges -and the other is to run in your "subcircuit." In the early 1990's Cook County was divided into 15 subcircuits, or defined geographic areas, where voters elect judges who reside in that specific subcircuit. The idea was to promote greater diversity on the bench. The entire 43rd Ward is in the 8th Subcircuit, where there are currently ten judges.


So you just throw your hat in the ring, right? Wrong. You can't run against an incumbent judge. Once elected, sitting judges do not run for re-election county-wide or in their individual subcircuit. They run for Retention, county wide, every six years. (You've seen that endless part of the ballot where you vote yes or no). Judges are retained if they get 60% of the vote. They are rarely, if ever, removed by the voters. (More on this is a future newsletter.)

Since you can't run against an incumbent, you can only run if there is a "vacancy." When a sitting Judge does not seek retention, retires or resigns, a vacancy is created in that Judge's name. Right now, there are seven vacancies listed for the county-wide judges. There are also Subcircuit vacancies listed, but there is no vacancy in the 8th Subcircuit at this time.

Having to run for a specific vacancy means that if there is more than one vacancy - either county-wide or in a specific subcircuit - you have to figure out which one to run for. The practical result is that candidates often circulate petitions for all, or a number of, the vacancies, and at the last minute, pull all but one set (you can't leave all the sets active, because under the law, you can only run for one office at a time).

Complicated? Yes. But wait, there's more.

Normally, your petitions for the judge are due Nov. 2, 2009, the same date as all other petitions for elected office. But judges get a special extended filing period. If a vacancy is declared at the last minute, between Oct. 12 and Nov. 2, 2009, a person can file petitions by November 23, 2009 and still get on the primary ballot for judge.

So, even if there is no vacancy right now, an alert candidate will keep an eye (and ear) on the rumor mill. Someone could announce their retirement before November 2, and if you are quick, you could still get your petitions in.

So if you want to be a judge, are your chances over if there is no vacancy by November 2? Nope.

Two: Get Appointed First, Run Later. Remember, you can only run if there is a vacancy. But what happens if a judge retires, resigns, or fails to seek retention after November 2, 2009? Under Illinois law, the judge has to announce whether is he is going to seek retention no later than six months before the next GENERAL election. That means if a judge resigns, retires, or does nothing by MAY 2, 2010, 3 months after the Primary, that creates a vacancy.

What happens then? A vacancy created after next February's primary is filled by appointment by the Illinois Supreme Court. The person appointed serves out the departing Judge's term until the next Primary election in 2012 when he will have to run for election to fill the vacancy of the Judge he replaced. That person has the advantage of incumbency, which, while not a guarantee, is certainly a help.

So that's it, right? You run, or you are appointed to fill a vacancy and run in the next election. No - there is a third way to become a judge.

Three: Become an Associate Judge. There are 146 sitting "associate judges" now in Cook County. They can serve in exactly the same courts as the other judges (except they cannot try felony cases, unless authorized by the Supreme Court) but they earn about $10,000/year less than full circuit court judges, Associate judges are elected by the other sitting circuit court judges, and are up for "re-election" by the Circuit Court judges every four years.

Case closed - but we just hit the highlights. It's not easy to become a judge, and we have a mixed system of appointment and election. But you notice, in all of this, I haven't talked about whether potential judges are qualified or not, or how slating works. Stay tuned for future newsletters for the answers to these mysteries, and my recommendations for reform.

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