Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Time for a non-partisan judicial primary

I sought permission to reprint Allen Adomite's commentary from this morning's ICJL Newsletter because I wanted FWIW readers to see that voters all over the state forfeit their right to elect judges if they skip the local majority party primary.

A lot of people may be tempted to take Republican primary ballots this year because the Republican gubernatorial primary is so hotly contested.

But Cook County voters who make that choice will forfeit their right to have any say in who will be elected to the Cook County Circuit Court or the First District of the Illinois Appellate Court.

There are no Republicans running countywide in Cook County. As Mr. Adomite points out, there are no Democrats running in many Downstate counties.

Accordingly, most judicial elections all over this state will be determined in the primaries. Most voters don't bother with primaries. When November rolls around, these voters will head to the polls and find out that nearly all judicial candidates are unopposed.

This effective disenfranchisement of so many voters across the state unfairly undermines confidence in the judiciary. Seriously, how good can a system of electing judges be if so many voters are automatically shut out of the election process?

I know what the Tribune and many (but not all) of the bar associations would prescribe as a remedy: End elections altogether and select judges on "merit."

In most states that have merit selection systems, the governor is the ultimate appointing authority. Given our history with governors here in Illinois, this may seem like a bad idea.

But don't worry about it: No matter how much its partisans may desire it, merit selection is not going to be adopted in this state any time soon. It is not a politically viable concept.

However, making the judicial primary process wholly nonpartisan might be one reform that could attract enough support from the movers and shakers in this state to become law.

Here's how it would work: All persons filing for judicial vacancies would be listed on the Democratic primary ballot and on the Republican primary ballot and on any non-partisan ballot that might be prepared.

A candidate who receives a majority of votes in the primary would be spared any opposition in the general election; otherwise the top two finishers in the primary would face each other in a November runoff.

If this sounds suspiciously like the way we now conduct our "nonpartisan" aldermanic and mayoral elections in Chicago, the similarity is entirely intentional.

The world did not stop revolving on its axis when aldermen stopped running as Democrats. The Democratic Party did not wither and die in Chicago because "nonpartisan" elections were instituted. Presumably, the Democratic Party in Cook County (and the Republican Party downstate) would both survive the switch to nonpartisan judicial elections.

If it makes sense to elect aldermen on an officially non-partisan basis, surely it makes much more sense to elect judges that same way. After all, aldermen are, and are supposed to be, partisan political creatures; no judge should ever be nearly as partisan.

Of course, there will be some who grouse that most voters will still have no say in the election of judges because, in a typical year, most voters will bypass primaries -- and most judicial elections may still be resolved at the primary stage.

I can not disagree.

But everyone should vote in the primary. And, while discharging that civic duty, the voter's selection of the minority party ballot in any county should not deprive that voter of having a say in the selection of judges who are (and should be) essentially non-partisan.

What do you think?

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