Saturday, April 05, 2014

Another lesson from last month's judicial primary: Lawyers needed to serve on Judicial Evaluation Committees

For bar association judicial evaluation committees, the March primary followed hard on the heels of associate judge season.

Over 270 judicial hopefuls filed for associate judge in February 2013. The bar associations JECs began sending out and sifting through questionnaires shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, the primary season was getting underway. There was, of course, some overlap between those filing for associate judge and those entering the primaries, but the primaries brought still more candidates for the already-taxed JECs to evaluate.

To cope with the volume of work, busy JECs have developed some shortcuts. For example, candidates who have sought judicial office before, and who have already been evaluated, are not automatically subject to the full evaluation process each time they reapply. Both the Alliance and CBA send short-form questionnaires to returning candidates; generally, the responses to these questionnaires are sufficient to allow the bar associations to continue to stand by the existing recommendations for these candidates. Still, these credentials have to be 'refreshed' after a period of time. In my own case, I had to go through the full CBA evaluation when I applied for the associate judge class seated in 2012. I had to submit the Alliance long-form evaluation when I applied for the current associate judge process.

An easy shortcut is to automatically "just say no" to any candidate who won't participate by completing an initial questionnaire.

Another, perhaps more controversial, shortcut is to set minimum guidelines for approval. Legally, one can seek judicial office as soon as he or she passes the bar exam. Most of the bar associations, however, will not consider giving positive ratings to a judicial hopeful who has not practiced law for at least 12 years.

Mind you, at my age and station in life, I am increasingly inclined to the view that the best judicial candidates should have some significant experience of life before attaining judicial office. One glance at my picture will explain why I have come around to these views. (When I first ran for judge, in 1994, I thought the ideal judicial candidate should exhibit considerably more youth and vigor. Go figure.)

But the would-be judge who has not yet practiced law for 12 years is not automatically incapable of doing a good job in judicial office. Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Rita B. Garman graduated from law school in 1968. She was an associate judge by 1974. Former Chief Justice Robert R. Thomas graduated from Loyola Law School in 1981 -- and was elected to the circuit bench in DuPage County in 1988. Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis was an Assistant Public Defender in Cook County for nine years, graduating from law school in 1974 -- and becoming an associate judge in 1983.

Thus, minimum practice guidelines may eliminate from consideration persons who, despite their relative youth and inexperience, would be fine judges. It certainly discourages younger judicial hopefuls (or those who have taken up the law as a second career) from participating in the evaluation process -- and that's unfortunate.

And even with these shortcuts to help move the evaluation process along, every primary season, the bar association JECs are stretched to the limit trying to complete their investigations in time for start of early voting. The Chicago Bar Association got its results out on February 19; the Chicago Council of Lawyers followed on February 26. But some Alliance members were still releasing results well after the start of early voting this year. First-time candidates, the ones are most anxious to find out whether they are deemed qualified or recommended by their peers, are often the last to be evaluated: Their evaluations are the most involved.

It's a numbers game.

And we need to increase the numbers of lawyers willing to serve on JECs.

So here comes the commercial. The Chicago Bar Association is actively recruiting new members for its Judicial Evaluation Committee. CBA members should visit the CBA home page and find and complete a membership application. Completed applications should be returned to by April 25. If you're not a CBA member, consider joining the CBA.

No Alliance member has specifically asked me to plug membership on their JECs at this time -- but I am virtually certain that new recruits (and new members) will likewise be welcomed with open arms.

Service on a JEC (or two or three) is one way in which lawyers can contribute measurably to the maintenance and even the improvement of the the quality of the Cook County bench. If you go to court and appear before judges, that should interest you. If you're thinking of running for judge yourself someday -- not in 2016 -- but in 2018 or later -- JEC service would be a good way for you to learn about the evaluation process first-hand. I think I can promise you that you'll come away with a greater appreciation for the quality of the men and women who seek judicial office.

And -- who knows? -- if the bar association JECs are sufficiently beefed up, perhaps they can investigate and report on the credentials of all persons who file for judicial office, whether they cooperate or not, or whether they have only six or seven or nine years' of practice in before making a first stab at judicial office.

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