Thursday, March 15, 2012

Dear Sun-Times: If voters pick "unknown names" for judge on Tuesday, look in a mirror

I wasn't going to do this. Mosquitoes should avoid picking fights with elephants, even emaciated elephants like the incredibly shrinking Sun-Times. No matter how feisty the mosquito, or weak the elephant, in any sort of dust-up, the smart money should always be on the elephant.

But, doggone it, in its newsletter this morning, the Illinois Civil Justice League highlights the editorial in Tuesday's Sun-Times as a way of promoting its own planned call for reform of the judicial selection process (promised for tomorrow).

That pushed me over the edge.

Now, I like the Sun-Times. I pick up a copy every day that I take the CTA to work. That's most days. But the paper's editorial Tuesday is so far out of line, for so many reasons -- well, let's break it down:
Forty-five of the judicial candidates running in the 28 Cook County races on March 20 are rated “not recommended” or “not qualified” by at least one of the bar associations. But it’s a safe bet most voters don’t know who the unqualified candidates are.

Did we say troubling? Change that to alarming.
There is only one candidate who has been rated not qualified or not recommended by every bar association who must win next Tuesday, that being Mr. Daniel R. Degnan. He's been unanimously panned by all of the bar associations because he refused to submit his credentials for review by his peers -- an automatic ground for rejection -- but he wound up as the only candidate in his 3rd Subcircuit race.

There are, indeed, other candidates who have been unanimously found not qualified or not recommended by all the bar groups, mostly (but not always) for the same reason as Mr. Degnan. But these individuals all have opponents, many of whom fared very well with the bar groups.

But read that passage again: The Sun-Times insinuates that even one negative review, from any bar association, makes a candidate "unqualified."

There are 12 bar associations that undertake the task of reviewing candidate credentials (the Chicago Bar Association and the 11 members of the Alliance of Bar Associations for Judicial Screening) -- 13, actually, in some races this year because the Northwest Suburban Bar Association also undertook to screen several of the candidates running in the 12th and 13th Subcircuits.

How many negative reviews makes a candidate unqualified? One out of 12? Two? Does that mean that the 10 or 11 bar associations that thought differently are simply wrong? Does the Sun-Times see one of these many bar associations as the true Oracle of Delphi?

I submit that Ed Austin, the Chair of the Chicago Bar Association Judicial Evaluation Committee, got it right when he explained, in an interview Tuesday on CLTV's Politics Tonight, that sometimes the bar associations "respectfully disagree" with one another. Reasonable people can and will disagree -- sometimes.

And if voters Tuesday don't know which candidates are unqualified, shouldn't the newspaper hold itself responsible? The CBA and the Alliance publish their ratings. The CBA and the Chicago Council of Lawyers publish narratives explaining their decisions. This blog republishes all of these. Ratings are also available at and, of course, the candidates promote their positive ratings on their websites.

But, yesterday, despite the paper's professed 'alarm,' instead of helping their readers to make informed choices in the forthcoming judicial election, the Sun-Times thought it was more important to run an interview with Steve Harvey (who's setting up a daytime TV talk show in Chicago) on page two. Today, the Sun-Times thinks that Charlie Sheen's new commercial for Fiat is worth half of page three.

The Sun-Times' suggested remedy for voter ignorance is not education but elimination: End judicial elections and have "merit selection" instead.
For those who worry that merit selection is anti-democratic and would take the selection of judges out of the hands of the voters, it’s worth pondering this: More than half the judges in Cook County are appointed to their seats by other judges now — without meeting minimum standards as they would have to under merit selection.
Yes, a great many of the candidates on the ballot Tuesday do hold their seats pursuant to Supreme Court appointment, but all of these were appointed after a screening process -- a process that varies from justice to justice -- the three Cook County Supreme Court justices take turns filling local Circuit Court vacancies as they occur and at their discretion -- but the process followed by each Cook County justice ALWAYS involves consultation with the local bar associations and the assent of all, or nearly all, of those groups to any appointment that the Supreme Court makes.

There'd be a different standard under merit selection?

Well, let's see... in most states where judges are appointed on "merit," the appointments are made by the governor. What else was in the Sun-Times this morning besides Charlie Sheen? Wasn't there something about ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich going to jail today? As of today, don't we have our two most recent ex-governors in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons? Sure, there'd be a grand Blue Ribbon Committee, with bar association presidents and law school deans and maybe the heads of a couple of citizen groups appointed to make recommendations... to the next Chris Kelly or Tony Rezko. That would be grand.

The real tragedy of next Tuesday's judicial primary is that some very qualified candidates are going to lose -- but they will, I hope, and I truly believe, lose to other very qualified candidates. Having compiled the information on this blog, I'm downright grateful I don't have to vote in some of the subcircuit races where it would be very difficult to choose between or among several superb candidates.

But this blog, like so many outlets on the Internet, tends to be a place for the Converted to preach to the Saved. (Or is that the other way round?)

If this blog has been helpful to you in deciding how to vote next week, do yourself, do your neighbors, and do the court system a favor: Tell your neighbors. Tell your friends. Tell your relations. Send them this link. There are a lot of judicial candidates on the ballot in Cook County Tuesday. There's no reason to be uninformed about any of them.

1 comment:

Albert said...

I'm glad that somebody else read that editorial and groaned. What got me was the silliness of complaining about uninformed voters just weeks after deciding not to provide any editorial endorsements to help guide them.

They think that voters will simply study the deluge of bar ratings that they apparently plan to provide, and that it will be just as good as their own endorsements. But it isn't. They tried it before--between 1996 and 2004 the paper printed bar-ratings charts instead of endorsing judicial candidates--and you could actually see in the election results that substantially fewer voters countywide used voter information. Decades worth of election results show that voters simply do not sort through large or complex data on judicial candidates. But if a newspaper sorts through it for them and gives simple guidance, some voters will respond.

There are contests in which the lack of a Sun-Times endorsement may well be the deciding factor between a better-qualified candidate and a lesser one. The paper's new owners (who obviously are the ones who made the no-endorsement decision) are going to have to live with that on their consciences.