Monday, September 10, 2007

Bench appointment strains relations between Supreme Court and Alliance of Bar Associations

The Illinois Supreme Court recently appointed Furmin D. Sessoms to the 5th Subcircuit vacancy opened by the resignation of Judge Bernetta D. Bush.

Sessoms, according to Sullivan's Judicial Profiles, has an undergraduate degree from the University of California-Berkeley and a law degree from Georgetown. Licensed in Illinois since 1990, Sessoms began his legal career with the Cook County Public Defender's Office. After a seven-year stint in private practice, Sessons rejoined the PD's office, this time as "as chief of the 4th Municipal District Office and, immediately prior to joining the bench, as Deputy Public Defender."

The Cook County Bar Association gave Sessoms its Harold Washington Award for community service in 2001. He's also been active in the National Bar Association, serving on the editorial board of its NBA Magazine. Sessoms has also served as executive director of the Chicago Southside NAACP chapter.

Sessoms' appointment has sparked a controversy.

The Chicago Tribune in a September 2 story by Michael Higgins (with Mickey Ciokajlo) reported that, although Sessoms was found "qualified" for judicial office by the Chicago Bar Association, Sessoms was found "not qualified" or "not recommended" by eight of the ten bar associations that together form the Alliance of Bar Associations for Judicial Screening. Only the Cook County Bar Association and the Black Women Lawyers' Association of Greater Chicago recommended Sessoms' appointment.

Like the Chicago Bar Association, the Chicago Council of Lawyers typically releases a brief explanation of its judicial ratings. Of Mr. Sessoms, according to the Tribune article, the Council stated: "Mr. Sessoms has no jury trial or appellate law experience and, despite his many years in the public defender's office, has only tried misdemeanor cases.... While he is to be praised for his community service and commitment to diversity, he has not demonstrated the legal ability or temperament necessary to be a judge." The other Alliance members typically do not release explanations for their ratings, nor did they do so on this occasion.

The Supreme Court requested an explanation anyway. And they didn't get one.

Brian Mackey reported, in the September 4 issue of the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin (subscription required), "the Alliance wrote back, saying the executive board had twice met to discuss the court's request and decided not to provide any additional information." Sessoms had agreed to waive his confidentiality rights, but the Alliance responded, "that release does not cover sources, investigators' reports and the post-interview discussion."

According to Mackey's story, the court's first request for information came in a letter signed by Cynthia Y. Cobbs, director of the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts. But when the Alliance decided not to accommodate the court's request, even after Sessoms waived his confidentiality rights, another letter was sent by the court, this one signed by all three of the Cook County justices, Charles E. Freeman, Thomas R. Fitzgerald and Anne M. Burke.

Mackey's article notes that the court's tone in this second letter was distinctly chilly:
"Your refusal to honor our express request for the same, particularly on the basis cited, [affects] the credibility of the evaluation and, frankly, gives us pause. Even more importantly, however, it renders near impossible Mr. Sessoms ability to mount any credible appeal," the letter states.

The justices also said they "covet zealously" their "independent constitutional authority to act in the absence of bar associations' assistance and, certainly, in spite of their refusals."

The letter uses the past tense throughout, thanking the Alliance for its "past assistance," which the court has "historically... seen fit to invite."
Mackey's article also noted that Justices Burke, Fitzgerald and Freeman all attended Sessoms' swearing-in ceremony. That's an unusual honor -- and as strong a statement, in its way, as anything said in its letter: The Supreme Court will appoint judges that it deems fit.

In a September 4, 2007 post on Illinoize!, Ed Murnane of the Illinois Civil Justice League tries to turn this disagreement among friends into an attempted power grab by "plaintiffs' lawyers, the personal injury trial lawyers who frequently seem to be more interested in the size of the award than in justice."

In the post, Lawyer Groups Throw Weight Around In Judge Selection, Murnane lamented that, in Cook County, "judicial candidates are slated by the Cook County Democratic Central Committee. They may, or may not, have any qualifications beyond the endorsement of a local ward or township committeeman." But, he said, "[p]erhaps more disturbing than the dominant role of political parties in selecting judges is the intimidating influence of the lawyer groups, starting with the Illinois State Bar Association."


Yes, Murnane says, the "ISBA, heavily influenced if not controlled by plaintiffs' attorneys, weighs heavily in the judicial selection and election process.... [The] ISBA has wielded far more influence than the organization deserves and its biases have been obvious." But the appointment of Judge Sessoms is hardly an illustration of the ISBA's 'intimidating' presence in the judicial selection process.

Let's just take a breath here and consider a couple of points.

Historically, although the ISBA evaluated judicial candidates everywhere else in Illinois, it did not attempt to do so in Cook County. The Chicago Bar Association took on evaluation of judicial candidates in Cook County, and devoted (and still devotes) considerable administrative resources and people-power to this process. By 1994, when I first ran for judge, other bar associations, including the Cook County Bar Association and the Women's Bar Association of Illinois had begun their own, independent evaluation processes. But these organizations have fewer members than the CBA and strained under the burden of trying to investigate each of the many candidates who filed for the primary. (Some organizations chose to focus only on certain races so as to not dilute their investigative resources. In 1994, as I recall, the Chicago Council of Lawyers chose not to evaluate candidates for subcircuit positions.)

I have reviewed an appreciation I wrote in 1994 for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin following my own unsuccessful primary run and find that I did not mention the ISBA at all.

It was the increasing number of candidates per vacancy and the budding interest of the ISBA in becoming involved in the evaluation of Cook County judicial races that led to the formation of the Alliance of Bar Associations for Judicial Screening. But the Alliance is a relatively new creation.

In addition to the ISBA, CCBA, WBAI, BWLA, and the Chicago Council of Lawyers, other Alliance members are:
I submit that Mr. Murnane misunderstands the role that bar association evaluations play in the judicial election process. They are opinions offered by organizations interested in the improved operation of the court system. Every organization offering an opinion may have a different idea about what improved operations may mean.

Since bar association recommendations are only opinions, informed voters (or in the case of Judge Sessoms, the very informed appointers) are free to consider and disregard them. In this case, the Supreme Court offered the dissenting Alliance members an opportunity to explain why they disagreed with the court's assessment that Judge Sessoms was fit to serve. When the Alliance chose not to respond, the court went ahead with its appointment.

But that does not mean that bar association evaluations are worthless. If anything, the opinions of the CBA and the ISBA and the rest of the Alliance members should be more widely disseminated and more influential: These opinions regarding a candidate's merits (clearly labeled as such) are often the only thing real life primary voters have to go on -- except for the palm card on the way into the polling place. Although a precinct captain may disagree, it takes more than a palm card to make an informed voter.

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