Thursday, February 13, 2014

WGN takes shots at all 12th Subcircuit candidates

Updated because, thanks to WGN-TV Interactive News Producer Elyse Russo, I can now embed Mr. Suppelsa's report from last night's broadcast. In addition to the video, I continue to provide the link to the WGN News site.

Last night WGN resumed its occasional series on "Judging the Judges," a series that seems focused on the perceived weaknesses of the election of judges from subcircuits in Cook County. Last night the race for the Jordan vacancy in the north suburban 12th Subcircuit was held up as the horrible example du jour.

A random commuter at the Glenview Metra station was asked if she knew any of the candidates.

She didn't.

Men in a barbershop were asked the same question.

Same result.

None of the candidates fared well in the WGN piece. Judge James Kaplan was singled out because his wife and son live in Lincolnshire, in Lake County, while the judge moved into a Glenview condominium to establish residency for the current campaign. The only explanation that WGN aired for Kaplan's separation from his family was that Kaplan "loves being a judge." Kaplan's insistence that he is in compliance with the residency law was included in the piece, but a law professor was trotted out to opine, "You can’t prevent somebody from undertaking the position if they comply with the letter but you don’t have to choose them if you don’t think they are complying with the spirit."

That set up WGN's swipes at the other candidates:
That leaves Kaplan to beat Samuel Bae, running for the first time and James Hanlon Jr, who votes as a Democrat some of the time and a Republican other times. Also running is Ralph Meczyk. He’s one of the attorneys who represented convicted police officer Drew Peterson. Meczyk decades ago was caught up in a federal investigation. He pled guilty to income tax charges, but later won a pardon from former President Clinton.

So voters in the 12th subcircuit, come March, those are your choices if you choose to vote.
Let's analyze this, shall we?

Samuel Bae hasn't run for office before. That's a disqualification? So, only professional pols need apply for judge? Is that what WGN is advocating?

James Edward Hanlon, Jr. has apparently failed to exhibit a completely unblemished record of fealty to the Democratic Party (his wife was elected to the bench as a Republican, back in the days when the 12th Subcircuit only elected Republican candidates). Is slavish devotion to party and faction the dispositive judicial virtue? Is that what WGN is advocating?

Ralph Eugene Meczyk's tax conviction and pardon are old news. The criminal conviction necessarily raises a question -- but can no one ever learn from a mistake and find professional redemption? Meczyk was one of the many attorneys who represented Drew Peterson. Should providing bad guys the zealous representation that they are entitled to under our best legal traditions disqualify an attorney from further public service? Perhaps it's just as well that WGN wasn't around when John Adams was representing the British soldiers charged in the Boston Massacre.

All of these slaps, mind you, were administered without any evident consideration of what any of the evaluating bar associations have to say about any of these candidates. (FWIW will have all the bar ratings as soon as they are released.)

A more nuanced presentation of last night's story is made by WGN's partner in the Judging the Judges series, Medill Watchdog, a journalism organization affiliated with Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. That's a link to Medill Watchdog's piece on last night's WGN story in the preceding sentence. In the Medill Watchdog piece, the mostly favorable bar ratings of three of the four candidates are mentioned (the Chicago Council of Lawyers can't get past Meczyk's tax conviction; the ratings of the first time candidate, Bae, have not yet been released).

Moreover, in the Medill Watchdog piece, we get an explanation as to why Kaplan might choose to establish a residence separate and apart from his family in order to pursue election to the bench. "[U]ntil his 2010 appointment [to an 8th Subcircuit vacancy], Kaplan long lived with his family in their home in Lincolnshire. That house puts them close to a facility that provides services for the couple’s disabled son, who still lives in the family house." (Kaplan moved into the 8th Subcircuit for his unsuccessful 2012 primary campaign; he was subsequently appointed to the 12th Subcircuit vacancy by the Illinois Supreme Court.)

In this blog I have advocated for greater coverage of judicial candidates and judicial elections. WGN is providing some coverage, albeit (I would argue) coverage with a sneer. If this kind of reporting gets people talking about judicial elections, and then investigating the qualifications of judicial candidates for themselves, and eventually making intelligent and informed decisions in the polling place, then it's a good thing. This could be an illustration of the old adage, all publicity is good publicity. But it's only good if people who do care about the integrity of the judicial election process can find ways to get a more balanced presentation to Mr. and Mrs. Average Voter. And the lady in the Glenview train station, too.

Updated 2/19/14 to clarify the status of the Medill Watchdog organization.


Edward X. Clinton, Jr. said...

The report is unfair to the judges, but the system of electing judges requires voters to learn about enormous numbers of people. Most people ignore the judicial elections because they don't have the time or the ability to do the research and vote on judges. For example, I have practiced law for 20 years. I know Jim Hanlon, who is certainly qualified, but do not know the other candidates.

Albert said...

The general issue of low voter awareness of judicial candidates is a valid one...but this report didn't handle it properly. The primary is still more than a month away, and the bar and newspaper recommendations haven't been released yet. Too early to be asking about those candidates.

Also, do these journalists believe that voter awareness of countywide candidates is any better? Fair is fair. If you're going to criticize the subcircuit system, then you have to show that countywide candidates are better known. (Which of course they aren't.)