On your ballot this March, you’ll find all the high-profile elections: president, Senate, Congress. But around half of the page will be filled with candidates and offices that you probably haven’t heard much about. Fifty-five candidates (more in certain subcircuits) are seeking to claim seats on the bench, with an opening on the Illinois Supreme Court, two on the First District Appellate Court, and 13 on the Cook County Circuit Court. Electing qualified judges is critically important, but judicial elections in Cook County often simply elect candidates based on their surname. This election cycle, with a Supreme Court seat on the line, it’s more imperative than ever to do the research and only vote for qualified judges.
Jack Leyhane, a Chicago attorney, runs a blog covering judicial candidates, and Injustice Watch also provides valuable coverage of these races. Apart from the occasional Sun-Times or Tribune endorsement, that’s about it for media coverage.
As a result, voters often choose candidates at random or skip these under-covered races entirely. Pundits have long commented on the trend of women, especially with Irish surnames, defeating their otherwise-qualified opponents simply because of their names. This is a well-established phenomenon, with The New York Times commenting on a case in 1984 when qualified judges lost to attorneys with the good luck to be named Tully, Shelly, Kelly, and Flanagan.
This political wisdom is borne out by statistics: An article in the DePaul Law Review found that having a female or Irish name provides a bigger advantage than high ratings from the county’s bar associations, endorsements from the newspapers, or even an endorsement from the Cook County Democratic Party. Alderman Ed Burke, who still serves on the Chicago City Council, has suggested that this is because voters recognize that the Irish are “inherently skilled at politics and government.” While this theory is doubtful, the actual reason for these trends is unclear: Hypotheses include perceptions of women as less harsh on criminal defendants, female voters possibly preferring female judges, the history of Irish Americans with names like “Daley” and “Burke” dominating Chicago’s political system, and the complex legacy of tensions between ethnic groups in Chicago. Judges, for their part, certainly seem to think it’s real—there’s a reason that Appellate Court Judge Sheldon Harris, who is currently running for Supreme Court, lists his name on the ballot as “Shelly.”
I, Sam Joyce, believe that electing more judges with Irish surnames is a noble and worthy cause. But qualifications ought to matter, too. Judges have immense power, and the decisions they make in Chicago affect the lives of thousands of people every day. The process that determines who is responsible for making difficult legal decisions should be more than just semi-random voting, which risks placing unqualified judges on the county bench.
Recent elections, however, have provided a glimmer of hope. In 2018, a sitting judge on the Cook County Circuit Court lost a retention election for the first time since 1990. Progressive activists formed the Coalition to Dump Matt Coghlan and successfully ousted a criminal court judge who was facing a federal civil rights lawsuit that alleged Coghlan, in his past work as a prosecutor, framed two men for a murder they did not commit. For the first time in decades, voters seemed to be paying attention to these elections, removing a judge who didn’t belong on the bench.
The highest-profile office on this year’s judicial ballot is an open seat on the Illinois Supreme Court. Justice P. Scott Neville, Jr., was appointed to replace retiring Justice Charles E. Freeman, but Neville has to win this election in order to secure a full 10-year term on the court.
Despite securing the endorsement of the Cook County Democratic Party, Neville’s victory is far from a sure thing. The candidate generating the most buzz is Daniel Epstein (J.D. ’15), an attorney with the prominent national law firm Jenner & Block and a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School. Epstein has sunk $300,000 of his own money into the campaign and is running on an unapologetically progressive platform, recently winning the support of the national progressive group Our Revolution. While his platform is admirable, his scant legal experience means that he is not qualified to sit on the Supreme Court.
So far, however, one group has pointedly declined to support Epstein: the bar associations. Both the Chicago Council of Lawyers (CCL), the city’s public interest bar association, and the Chicago Bar Association (CBA) have declared Epstein “not recommended,” and he has received negative rankings across the board from the city’s minority and women bar associations. Both the CCL and CBA mentioned Epstein’s limited experience as an attorney: Epstein was admitted to the Illinois bar in 2015 and has approximately four years of experience as a lawyer. The CCL’s report specifically mentioned that Epstein’s dedication to improving access to justice is admirable, but that his lack of experience ultimately disqualified him for the role of Illinois Supreme Court Justice.
It’s worth contrasting Epstein’s experience with that of Neville and Margaret Stanton McBride, the two candidates rated as “well qualified” by the CCL and “highly qualified” by the CBA. Both have been practicing attorney for more than 40 years; Neville spent 14 years on the Illinois Appellate Court before being appointed to the Supreme Court in 2018, while McBride has served on the Appellate Court since 1998. Both have extensive experience at the appellate level, which would allow them to handle the complex legal issues that frequently come before the Supreme Court—experience that Epstein, despite his excellent proposals for reforms to the justice system, simply does not possess.
Another appellate court seat up for election demonstrates the need for care and diligence when voting in judicial elections even more dramatically. Maureen O’Leary, an attorney who currently works for a nursing home chain, has filed to fill Neville’s old spot on the Appellate Court. O’Leary has been found “not qualified” by the CCL and “not recommended” by the CBA, both citing her lack of litigation experience.
An article published by Injustice Watch last week suggested that O’Leary might be a “sham candidate,” a woman with an Irish surname recruited to draw votes from another candidate—in this case, Circuit Judge Carolyn Gallagher—who would otherwise see a substantial advantage from her gender and ethnic surname. Diluting Gallagher’s advantage would presumably be a substantial boon to the candidate slated by the Cook County Democratic Party, Appellate Judge Michael Hyman.
The rest of the ballot is full of similar landmines. Of the 42 candidates running for the countywide Circuit Court seats, the CBA has declared eight of them “not recommended,” often because of their limited experience, poor knowledge of the law, or failure to participate in the judicial evaluation process. The Illinois State Bar Association goes even further, finding 11 of the 42 either “not recommended” or “not qualified.”
The bar associations are not the only guide to how to vote. Often, the associations will agree that all the candidates for election are equally qualified—the four candidates to fill Coghlan’s vacancy, for example, have all received a “qualified” rating from both bar associations, with none receiving the coveted “highly recommended” ranking.
In these cases, it’s worth reading more about each candidate’s background and experience and picking the one you believe will represent the best addition to the judiciary. I believe diversity of experience is important, especially on a county bench historically stacked with former prosecutors, so, all else being equal, I tend to vote for candidates who are former public defenders.
Voting is a sacred responsibility, and organizations like UChiVotes have done impressive work to make sure that more students cast ballots. Voting, however, should require more than just checking boxes at random. If you’re voting in the Illinois primary next month, make sure to do your research on the judicial candidates, and pick the ones with the best legal qualifications for the job. Judges play an important role in our society—which ones you vote for should be an informed decision.
Early voting is open now through March 16 at 191 North Clark. Early voting locations will open at the King Community Service Center, Jackson Park Fieldhouse, and Coleman Branch Library on March 2 through the 16, and at the Reynolds Club from March 11 through the 13. Election day is March 17. Find your polling place and obtain a sample ballot at chicagoelections.gov.
Sam Joyce is a fourth-year in the College.