Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Morning After the Primary

The votes are in, but not yet counted, from yesterday's Illinois primary.

One thing is certain, however: Thousands, probably tens of thousands, of Illinois voters were effectively disenfranchised.

I'm not referring to the speculations about the new voting systems that are thoroughly documented in today's newspapers. Rather, I'm talking about Republicans in Cook County (except those in a handful of Republican subcircuits) and Democrats in the collar counties who took ballots for their parties -- and were thereby prevented from having any say in who would be elected to the bench.

Judicial races are decided in the primaries in Illinois. In Cook County, the Republicans don't even bother to put up candidates for the circuit bench in countywide races: The winners of yesterday's primary races must wait until December to be sworn in, but they will take office at that time. November is only a formality.

The bar associations say this shows the need for "merit selection" of judges.

But what is merit selection? Politicians slate judicial candidates now; the slated candidates usually win. "Usually" means not always. Sometimes it's because a "slated" candidate is "dumped" in favor of someone else by a group of committeemen. Sometimes it's because the slated candidates have 'funny names' and they are beaten by a man or woman whose only qualification for elected office is a mellifluous Irish surname. But sometimes the slated candidate loses because a more qualified candidate finds a way to squeak by.

With merit selection, the politicians get to slate the candidates -- and they will always win. Because politicians will do the selecting, whatever "blue ribbon" commissions are set up to disguise their choices.

I know most voters don't know and don't care about judicial candidates. I know the newspapers can't be bothered to cover judicial races. Here's a link to the March 1 story that appeared in the Chicago Tribune -- the only one I could find while searching the website this morning. Not one candidate is mentioned. Last Sunday, instead of reporting information, the Tribune ran a six-panel editorial cartoon in the Perspective section lampooning how people choose judges in the absence of information with which to make informed choices.

My perception is that the Chicago Sun-Times does a better job of covering judicial races, largely because former Chicago Law Bulletin writer Abdon Pallasch is on the staff -- but I must confess that my search this morning of the Sun-Times web site for appropriate illustrative links came up empty.

In any event: I propose that we do away with partisan primaries for judicial elections. All judicial candidates would appear on all primary ballots, for whatever party. A candidate who receives 50% plus one would be unopposed in November -- in all other cases, the top two finishers would be paired off. It would not eliminate slating, but at least those persons sufficiently civic-minded enough to come out for a primary election would not have to choose between party loyalty or forfeiting the opportunity to stand up and be counted as to who will serve them on the bench.

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