Friday, June 14, 2019

Protest of 7th Subcircuit appointment set for later this morning... but why?

So this flyer burbled up on my phone last evening. I spent some time looking for confirmation on social media that this was a for-real thing.

I eventually found it floating around Facebook. I can't confirm who's organizing this protest, but I can confirm that at least one recent judicial candidate had this flyer on Facebook tonight.

For those who came in late, Cara Lefevour Smith, who has been toiling of late as a spokesperson and policy adviser for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, was appointed last Friday to a 7th Subcircuit vacancy created by the recent retirement of Judge Marianne (not Marion) Jackson.

Ms. Smith's appointment was made by the Illinois Supreme Court on the recommendation of Justice Anne M. Burke. Illinois Supreme Court justices have the privilege of recommending persons for vacancies in their respective districts; the Court generally accepts those recommendations. In Cook County, a/k/a the First Judicial District, we have three Supreme Court justices. They take turns when vacancies arise. The Jackson vacancy was Justice Burke's to fill. This past February, Justice Burke announced an application process for filling this vacancy.

Back in the early 1990s, when the subcircuit system was created, the 7th Subcircuit was one of those subcircuits intended to increase African-American representation on the Cook County bench. Judge Jackson (elected a full circuit judge in 2016 after serving as an associate judge since 1997) is African-American. Ms. Smith is not.

Demographics have shifted in many parts of the county since 1990, including, in particular, in the 7th Subcircuit. But the subcircuit boundaries have remained unchanged since the subcircuit system was put in place. These population shifts spurred the Illinois General Assembly, just this month, to pass HB 2625, requiring that the subcircuit boundary lines be redrawn after the 2020 census.

Ms. Smith's future on the bench is by no means assured. If she wishes to stay in office, she will have to seek election next year.

But if Ms. Smith is elected next year, she would not be the first non-African-American judge elected in the 7th Subcircuit.

Two 7th Subcircuit vacancies were filled in 2016. Judge Jackson won one of these; the other was won by Judge Patricia S. Spratt. Judge Spratt was appointed to that other vacancy in 2015 on the recommendation of then-Supreme Court Justice Charles Freeman. Former Justice Freeman is African-American; Judge Spratt is not.

Two 7th Subcircuit vacancies were filled in by election in 2014 as well. One of the judges elected then was African-American; the other was not.

Three of the four judges elected from the 7th Subcircuit in 2012 were African-American. But one was not.

Neither the appointment nor the election of a non-African-American in the 7th Subcircuit is unprecedented. And appointment is not election. And if the community is not enamored of this appointment, the appointee will not survive the primary. That's why many people favor having judicial elections, to prevent elites from simply imposing judges on a community.

So... why is this appointment so controversial?

I don't know for certain, of course, but I do know that, late yesterday, Justice Burke took the extraordinary step of issuing a press release explaining the appointment process generally -- and discussing one disappointed applicant in particular. Quoting from the press release:
On Oct, 29, 2018, Ald. Jason Ervin came to my office and asked me to appoint Pamela Reaves-Harris to an upcoming 7th Subcircuit vacancy. I let Ald. Ervin know that Ms. Harris was welcome to apply and that she would need to be reviewed by my Judicial Selection Committee.

* * *

Pamela Reaves-Harris submitted an application which included an evaluation by The Chicago Bar Association Judicial Evaluation Committee. The evaluation, executed by then President Patricia Brown Holmes, found Ms. Harris to be “Not Recommended” for the office of Circuit Court Judge and stated, in part, that while Ms. Harris was “a dedicated, busy and hardworking public servant,” her “limited practice and court experience would make it difficult for her to effectively serve as a Circuit Court Judge.” My Judicial Selection Committee similarly concluded that Ms. Reaves-Harris was not a qualified candidate. Cara LeFevour Smith was found “Highly Qualified” by both the Chicago Bar Association and my Judicial Screening Committee. The Supreme Court unanimously voted to [appoint] Cara LeFevour Smith to the 7th Subcircuit vacancy.
Here are some additional facts: Derrick Smith was appointed to a vacancy in the Illinois House of Representatives in March 2011. In March 2012, just a week before the Democratic primary, Smith was arrested on federal charges. An informant caught Smith on tape accepting a $7,000 bribe to promote a grant to a day care center. On tape, Rep. Smith can be overheard telling the man passing the money to just 'leave it in the envelope.'

The man passing the money was also the man wearing a wire.

Well, Smith won the primary with Democratic Party support (he was running against a one-time Republican operative for the Democratic nomination), but got booted out of the House thereafter. Despite his expulsion, Smith stayed on the ballot, beating a "Unity Party" candidate who was recruited and endorsed by the Democratic Party in Smith's stead.

Smith could not be expelled from the House a second time for the same offense -- and his case hadn't gone to trial by the time the 2014 primary rolled around. So the party put up Pamela Reaves-Harris to oppose him. She won. (Smith was convicted in June 2014.)

Reaves-Harris did not run for reelection. As a result, Melissa Conyears-Ervin, the wife of Ald. Jason Ervin, wound up unopposed in the Democratic Primary and won that seat, holding it until her recent election as City Treasurer.

These facts may explain why Ald. Ervin sees this particular appointment as a "problem." Or not.


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