Monday, August 19, 2013

Slating, professions of partisan loyalty, and the art of persuasive speaking

In a recent column, Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown seemed dismayed at the many judicial candidates who "cited their party credentials before mentioning their experience as lawyers or their ratings from the bar groups."

I didn't see anything particularly unseemly about this: It's a standard rhetorical weapon in the arsenal of any would-be persuasive speaker.

I don't suggest that one persuades in all cases by loudly proclaiming one's eternal fealty to the Democratic Party.

Rather, a persuasive speaker tries to find something he or she has in common with the audience, whether that audience is a jury, a school group, or the Cook County Central Democratic Committee.

The speaker puts something out there about himself: We have this in common. Identify with me.

A vegan who wanted to get something from a beef producer's convention wouldn't start off her remarks by praising soyburgers. No, she'd look for something in common with her audience. Maybe, back in her 4-H days, like a lot of future ranchers, she'd raised a doe-eyed calf to exhibit at the County Fair. (She just would leave out the part about how she was so upset when the animal was sold for slaughter.) She'd say she's from rural America, just like her audience. I'm not so different than you. You can trust what I have to say.

In his closing argument, the trial lawyer in the $3,000 suit tells the blue collar jury a story about his daddy coming home from the factory. I may look different, but we come from the same background. We share the same values. You should see things my way.

The lawyer invited to address a student assembly at her old high school doesn't start out bragging about how hard she worked and how proud she was to be invited to join the National Honor Society. She did and she was -- but starting off with that would alienate too many of the kids in the audience. So she says, "I had to go to the principal's office when I got here this morning. And I was surprised that, even 20 years after I graduated, I was still nervous. My palms were sweating." Most of the kids could relate to that. And once you see me as someone like you, I have a chance to persuade you.

So it is with the judicial candidates before the slating committees. Of course they're loyal Democrats -- particularly if "loyal" is measured by primary voting. Cook County lawyers who are interested in the court system have to take Democratic ballots in the primary; that's where the judges are elected. The Republicans have all but abandoned Cook County, especially in judicial races. There are seldom any election contests in the fall. The primary is the election.

Some of the over 40 men and women who trooped to the podium last Thursday are partisan, activist Democrats. Some are less so. Some have been generous to Democratic candidates and active in a number of campaigns. Each emphasized whatever he or she could. They didn't say these things because they were willing to throw their own judgment or principles aside for the good of the Party, but because the room was filled with partisan, activist, Democrats. Identify with me. I am like you. We have much in common.

The two candidates who didn't need to tout their party credentials were David W. Ellis and Judge Freddrenna M. Lyle. Judge Lyle was a committeeman herself, and recently; many in the room knew her well. Mr. Ellis was not a committeeman, but as the House Speaker's lawyer, he was also clearly an Insider. "Easiest decision we'll have all day," one committeeman told me when Ellis stepped up. Later, another candidate would remind the committeemen that he, too, had been one of their number. But he had been committeeman in what Richard J. Daley used to quaintly refer to as one of the "county towns." Just the fact that he had to remind his audience put him at a disadvantage; he was not slated.

The room was filled with Insiders, and nearly all the lawyers parading to the podium were trying to look a little less like Outsiders. In this context, to me at least, the very rhetorical device that so offended Mr. Brown struck me as a little threadbare. What works with juries or school groups didn't seem very effective at the Hotel Allegro: The committeemen knew which hopefuls they'd seen before, which ones have been coming to events for years and which ones popped out of the woodwork within the last few months. The protestations of loyalty bothered Mr. Brown and, I'm sure, many of his readers. After awhile, I hardly even noticed these declarations anymore. Worse for the candidates, I don't think the committeemen noticed, or cared, much about these either.


Michael A. Strom said...

Now THERE's an accurate point of view you never see in the newspaper articles covering slating. Gee, about half of the Mark Brown piece could have been preloaded and edited from Abden Pallasch's last article on point. -- Michael Strom

Anonymous said...

Brown's column addresses a larger point missed by the blogger in his response. The "loyalty" question is a constantly moving target. Three candidates who were slated previously ran against the Party, some multiple times. Another, who was found highly qualified by the bar associations, also ran against the Party in the past, but he was jettisoned because of WHO sponsored the person he ran against; thus proving that not all slated candidates are created equal.

While the committeemen are partisan, they were ELECTED to their positions and, I submit, owe a moral duty to the electorate to slate a diverse group of well-qualified attorneys with actual litigation experience. What someone has done for the Party should be an afterthought for the committeemen after qualifications are vetted. It is not that way in Cook County and that is wrong.

I take offense to the "well this is Chicago politics" defense of our system of electing judges. Just because an unfair undemocratic process has been in place for decades does not mean it works, or that it produces good results. The electorate, our clients, and our ability to earn gets hurt in the end by judge's elevated to the bench solely because they are related to someone, or have the right clout. With a number of well-qualified candidates seeking the Party's endorsement for the appellate court, I am completely aghast at two-thirds of those who were slated, and if you handle appeals, you should be too.

The Supreme Court must share some blame for this too. I doubt our court system would implode if the current 10 countywide vacancies sat vacant until election. Instead, the Supreme Court rushes to fill vacancies to reward friends and to give a head start to cronies; some of whom have never tried a case in their career or have been found not qualified. Once these people get on the bench, it is nearly impossible to get rid of them and we are the ones saddled with them for the next 20 years.

The system is broken and will remain that way until people demand better; at least Brown tried to bring that to readers' attention.

Jack Leyhane said...

Mike -- Thank you for your nice comment.

Anon -- I also appreciate your thoughtful remarks. I think we may agree more than we disagree. However, while I have opinions, I don't express my opinions about the slate generally or about particular candidates on this blog.

I will say that we are likely to continue to elect judges in this state for the foreseeable future. Since we have a political process, it stands to reason that lawyers interested in judicial service will have to seek political help to win election. I am not apologizing for or touting the benefits of slatemaking. I just don't think it makes sense to get upset when would-be candidates talk about political credentials when asking for the support of politicians. (I think a lot of the talk of 'loyalty' that Mr. Brown found so unsettling comes from the fact that, in most cases, the lawyers appearing before the slatemakers actually had very thin political credentials.)

One of the things that I hope this blog can do is to help lawyers seeking judicial office connect with the electorate. I may be naive, but I like to think that the best qualified lawyers will distinguish themselves in the process. But the people will decide who is really the best qualified.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anon... as an appellate lawyer I am very disturbed that Ellis and Lyle will be deciding appellate issues when their experience and qualifications are so lacking. I understood that the democratic party only nominated candidates found qualified by the Chicago and Illinois bars.... so I am even more upset with them.