Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sun-Times refusal to make any endorsements will hurt good judicial candidates

Robert Feder is among the many questioning the wisdom of the decision by the Chicago Sun-Times (announced yesterday) to make no endorsements. In its signed editorial (linked in the preceding sentence), the Sun-Times stated, "Research on the matter suggests that editorial endorsements don't change many votes, especially in higher-profile races."

While this may be so in "higher-profile" races, research in judicial races has shown that newspaper endorsements can be worth tens of thousands of votes.

As Mr. Feder said last evening, in a Time Out Chicago post entitled No endorsements: Sun-Times move casts voters adrift, "Even if voters are adequately informed about top-of-the-ballot races (which itself is debatable), that's hardly the case for lower positions or judicial candidates."

The Sun-Times says it will "post assessments made by respected civic and professional groups, such as the Chicago Bar Association’s guide to judicial candidates." It promises also to post questionnaire responses (although it is not clear from the editorial whether judicial candidates will be asked to respond to questionnaires -- nor is it clear whether these responses will be posted behind the pay wall the Sun-Times is constructing). If there are judicial questionnaire responses posted, and if these can be linked without running afoul of a pay wall, I'll link them here.

There can be an argument made that past Sun-Times judicial endorsements were not particularly persuasive because, in most races, there was little explanation as to why the paper favored this candidate over that one. However, readers knew, or should have realized, that the Sun-Times had reporters covering the courts, particularly the criminal courts, where reporters could get to know and formulate substantive opinions about the judicial potential of some of the attorneys handling cases there. (As a civil attorney, I was sometimes a bit miffed that ASA's and PD's and other members of the criminal defense bar automatically had a leg up in the endorsement process -- but that's another story.) Even if the bases of the paper's recommendations were not always made clear, readers had some reasonable assurance that the editors were choosing to endorse people known to them or their staff. But for the newspaper to now say that, instead of endorsing, 'we'll tell you who the CBA recommends,' is a cop-out.

The Chicago Bar Association and the 11 members of the Alliance of Bar Associations do not make endorsements. They pass on the credentials of judicial candidates, advising whether, in their respective opinions, a candidate is "qualified" or "recommended" for the bench. There will be races on the March 20 primary ballot in which each and every candidate is rated qualified or recommended by every bar association. Sadly, there may be some (a few) in which none of the candidates is rated qualified or recommended by any bar association. In either case, how can a voter use bar ratings alone to choose a candidate to support?

Where I can get a complete list, For What It's Worth will continue to report any and all endorsements from any community group, political organization, newspaper, or union as well as bar association ratings. I'll continue to try and provide a forum, in my 'organizing the data' posts (which, with any luck at all, will be up in time for early voting) to allow voters to make the most informed choices possible in judicial elections. But the Sun-Times' decision to abandon its prerogative to make endorsements is going to hurt some good judicial candidates this year.


Matt said...

I have a big beef to pick with the Sun Times and Tribune making judicial endorsements based solely on bar association ratings. This is what they did in subcircuit races. This where they have huge influence in judicial elections and choose to take a short cut.

Neither paper should be making endorsements where a member of the paper's staff does not at least talk to each candidate in response to a questionnaire that has been filled out.

I firmly believe that the Sun-Times endorsed in the 2010 judicial races so they could justify their attack on Pamela Hill Veal

Albert said...

The Sun-Times has done this before. Between 1996 and 2004 it did not endorse judicial candidates, instead providing those giant bar-association ratings grids. The result was a significant decline in information-based voting in the judicial contests. Readers simply do not sort through complicated lists of ratings; they rely on their newspaper to do that for them and provide a simple, clear, easy-to-follow recommendation. Their claim about research showing no impact is baloney. You're correct in saying that this change will hurt qualified candidates who need the editorial support.