Thursday, June 18, 2009

Asian groups protest filling of Otaka vacancy

FWIW received this press release:
Local Asian American leaders are outraged, dismayed, and disappointed by the hasty action of the Illinois Supreme Court to fill a seat left vacant by the recent death of Circuit Court Judge Sandra Otaka.

Otaka, who died on Saturday, June 5th, was the first and only Asian American elected to serve as a circuit court judge in Cook County. Her successor was appointed just five days after her death -- before the judge had even been laid to rest.

"The circumstances surrounding the appointment of Judge Otaka's successor suggests that the decision was made without regard to the changing demographics of the comm unity she served," said Diana Lin, president of the Asian American Institute (AAI).

Otaka, first elected judge in 2002, was retained last November in the 9th Judicial Subcircuit District -- home to Cook County's largest concentration of Asian Americans (about 300,000 residents).

The public outcry from community leaders came after they learned that the Illinois Supreme Court had appointed, as Otaka's successor, someone with no ties, or familiarity, with the county's Asian American community.

Nearly three-dozen Asian American groups (see attached list) are demanding more transparency in the appointment process and pushing for diversity on the bench with qualified candidates. The Asian American Bar Association, which expected to be consulted for recommendations of qualified candidates, had not even been notified that the process to select Otaka's successor was already ongoing.

"There are Asian American lawyers qualified to merit consideration for Judge Otaka's vacancy," says Anne I. Shaw, immediate past president of the Asian American Bar Association (AABA). "Given the historic significance of Judge Otaka's election and her stature as a beloved icon for Asian Americans, we had hoped that the Illinois Supreme Court would have exercised some sensitivity to Cook County's Asian American community by giving strong consideration to the prospect of appointing an Asian American, appointing someone with ties to our community or, at least, alerting Asian American community leaders."

Asian Americans are the fastest-growing minority group within the legal profession, yet continue to be grossly underrepresented in the judiciary. Otaka championed the effort to increase diversity in the Cook County court system. Her death leaves only six judges of Asian ancestry in the county. However, all six are associate judges -- not full circuit court judges like Otaka.

Groups protesting the recent action of the Illinois Supreme Court include:
End of press release.

Anne I. Shaw, the President of the Asian American Bar Association in 2007-08, was listed on the release as a contact person and I took the liberty of following up.

Some background:

As I understand the process, while the entire Supreme Court fills vacancies, as a practical matter, the Court acts on the recommendation of the justice in whose district the vacancy occurs. In Cook County, which has three justices, the justices take turns making appointments.

These days all of the justices have committees of one sort or another to advise them on appointments. In Cook County the Chicago Bar Association, at least, will be asked to provide an opinion about the merits of proposed appointee. Many persons seeking appointments have sought judicial office before and will have already had their credentials examined by both the CBA and the Alliance of Bar Associations for Judicial Screening. The Asian American Bar Association is a member of the Alliance.

In an email to FWIW, Anne Shaw, the former AABA president, acknowledged that AABA had not contacted the Supreme Court about the Otaka vacancy before it was filled. "We are and were mourning Judge Otaka’s death. She was a beloved leader and icon not just in our community, but in the community at large," Shaw said.

I have no inside knowledge of the circumstances surrounding how the Otaka vacancy was filled, but it may be that Yehuda Lebovits had already been screened and approved for appointment for the next available 9th Subcircuit vacancy before Judge Otaka's passing. That might account for how quickly the vacancy was filled. Anne Shaw had nothing to say against Mr. Lebovits individually; rather, she said, the Asian groups are calling for "greater transparency in the [appointment] process."

"Greater transparency," Shaw said, "would benefit everyone," including the Illinois Supreme Court. "We believe that this will encourage a larger pool of qualified applicants for the Illinois Supreme Court to consider."

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