Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Tribune editorializes in favor of "merit selection"

And a certain balance is restored to the Universe.

Early last month I discovered that the Tribune was running candidates' responses (including judicial candidates' responses) to its questionnaires on the newspaper's website. I wrote then that I found myself in a "pleasant state of shock" at the discovery. After all, historically, at least until it makes its endorsements, the Tribune refuses to pay any attention at all to judicial races. In a typical election cycle it might run a single story, usually slamming one candidate in particular for something or other, and closing with a plea for merit selection better suited to the editorial page.

This year, the Tribune may have skipped the news story (though there's still time!) and gone straight to the editorial. I reproduce this morning's linked editorial herewith, along with my own comments thereon:
In a few weeks, Illinois primary voters will choose candidates for governor, for Congress, for the legislature and several other offices. Most voters will have a pretty firm opinion about the high-profile races. But down the ballot, they'll face the names of some complete strangers. Those strangers are running for judge. We're working now to make those strangers more familiar to you.
This would have been a great place for for the Tribune to plug the link to judicial candidate questionnaires it has done, wouldn't it? It would have been a great place to plug the site... if that were the point of the editorial.
We're evaluating judicial candidates, and we'll make endorsements soon. But let's face it, a lot of voters will do something akin to throwing darts at the board. They'll pick the nicest sounding name. Or the one that sounds vaguely familiar. Or they'll skip the judicial races altogether.

In one subcircuit race in Cook County, 12 Democrats are running. There are eight Democrats in another race.

Which one has the best command of the law? Who will be fair and impartial? Who won't hold a grudge ... or take a bribe? Candidate A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H ...?
Gosh, don't you wish we had a newspaper in this town? A newspaper might be just the place to look for information about people running for public office....
This page has long argued that Illinois should drop judicial elections and go to a system in which judges are appointed on merit. Illinois is one of 27 states that elect judges.

Elections force judicial candidates to raise large sums of money, creating the risk of favoritism on the bench. Elections give power to political parties that endorse judicial candidates and expect loyalty in return.
I agree that political fundraising -- and particularly political fundraising by judicial candidates -- is distasteful. I don't think there's anyone who's ever run for judge who's had any enthusiasm for fundraising. But judicial candidates aren't funded by political parties; historically, political parties have expected financial support from judicial candidates in exchange for the benefit of being slated. Most judicial candidates aren't running with support from any political organization at all. If historic patterns hold, some of these non-slated individuals will win anyway. I rather doubt that this would foster long-lasting party loyalty from the successful judicial candidate -- particularly given Illinois' wholly non-partisan retention process.

If there were instances of judges making decisions according to political loyalty instead of following the law, that might be something that... let's see... investigative reporters might cover. If only the Tribune had a staff of investigative reporters that could document this very serious charge in particular cases....
Illinois has seen some gaudy examples of special interests bankrolling judicial races. Candidates spent $9.4 million on a 2004 race for the Illinois Supreme Court and $3.3 million on a 2006 state appellate court race.

Illinois needs a constitutional amendment to create a merit selection system for judges.
Now, at the end, we come to the real point.
That effort has gone nowhere. But it might be in line for a boost.

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has launched a campaign to end state judicial elections. The O'Connor Judicial Selection Initiative was created by the University of Denver's Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System.

The institute encourages states to adopt the best practices of states that have moved to merit selection. Example: Let governors appoint judges from lists of candidates who are nominated by bipartisan evaluation panels. Make the process completely transparent. Have a diverse membership on the panel, with more nonlawyers than lawyers. Appoint judges to an initial term of two to three years, then evaluate their performance. If they pass muster on command of the law, impartiality, temperament, and other factors, grant them a longer term. These are all good ideas -- and much better than throwing darts at a board on Election Day.

The goal of the O'Connor initiative is to educate the public to the dangers of judicial elections and build public support for change, one state at a time. Nevada will vote in November on a constitutional amendment for merit selection.

Illinois needs to do this. Until it does, we don't want you to have to vote for strangers.

We'll help you find some good, honest candidates. Watch for our endorsements.
Let governors appoint judges? Do the Tribune editorialists ever actually read the news? Rod Blagojevich is about to make an appearance on Celebrity Apprentice -- and then as a criminal defendant on Federal corruption charges including, but not limited to, allegedly trying to sell Barack Obama's Senate seat. Mr. Blagojevich's predecessor, George Ryan, is in jail.

Oh... but the governor would pick from "lists of candidates who are nominated by bipartisan evaluation panels."


And who would be on those panels? The bar associations and the law schools would fall over themselves pushing forward their candidates, but what's to stop the next Tony Rezko or Chris Kelly from being appointed to the nomination panels instead?

I'd welcome "merit selection" -- if it were realistic. But in the meantime, we already have a broad-based nomination panel with a "diverse membership" that truly reflects our communities. It's called the electorate.

You're reading this blog so you're already interested in learning about judicial candidates in Cook County. But tell your neighbors. There's a lot that you can discover about judicial candidates on line. Let me mention the Tribune website again. There's also And, of course, there's information right here on this blog, and more will be forthcoming in the days and weeks leading up to the primary. The Tribune need not worry: You don't have to vote for strangers.


fedup dem said...

This nonsense is what one should expect from a newspaper whose editorial board is headed by a former college jazz show producer who continually proves how clueless he is about matters of government and politics.

bonnie mcgrath said...

jack, you did a great job reacting to and writing about this editorial... very perceptive and logical. great responses to ALL the points!

Thomas Flannian said...

Great comments. Nothing is more hilarious than the Tribune lecturing us about ethics and morality. I trust the electorate more than governors like Sarah Palin to pick our judges.

Thomas Flannigan