Cook County voters have new resource for evaluating retention-seeking judges

aThe retention campaign of Illinois Supreme Court Justice Tom Kilbride highlights one of the retention systems drawbacks: Voters often struggle to make informed decisions about judicial candidates seeking additional terms in office.

People outside of the legal community often lack credible information about the candidates seeking retention, prompting them to casting those votes, or arbitrarily picking the "yes" or "no" choice. And while many bar associations provide recommendations to voters, the groups' opinions don't always agree and their recommendations may not be based on clear criteria.

As a result, the few voters who do vote on the retention questions tend to default to giving candidates thumbs up, resulting in nearly all Illinois judges being retained in the process.

This is particularly problematic in Cook County, where voters in the most populous county are presented with dozens of retention-seeking candidates near the end of their ballots. Since 1990, no Cook County judge has failed to obtain the 60 percent threshold needed for retention, despite some receiving negative recommendations from the bar associations.

This year, voters in Cook County have a new resource to assist them in making their decisions about whether to vote to retain the 70-odd candidates in their district.

The Chicago Appleseed Fund For Justice and Chicago Council of Lawyers have organized a Model Performance Commission which has conducted research on the retention-seeking candidates' performance on the bench, and made recommendations on whether voters should vote to retain them. (Information about the Model Performance Commission and its recommendations are located here. ICPR participated on the Model Commission's advisory team.)

Comprised of lawyers and non-lawyers, the Model Performance Commission reviewed interviews and surveys of lawyers who appeared before the retention-seeking judge. That research sought the lawyers' opinion on a given judge's legal ability, temperament, fairness, diligence, integrity and courtroom management.

Upon reviewing that information, the Performance Commission made "recommended" or "not recommended" opinions on each of the judges. Each such recommendation includes a summary of the research collected on the candidate and justification of the Commission's suggestion.

A portion of the "recommended" candidates also were given suggestions on ways to improve their conduct overall -- a resource Appleseed and the Chicago Council of Lawyers hope will help improve the judiciary in the long run.

Organizers and supporters, including ICPR, hope to expand the project in coming years, but for now, Cook County voters, check out the Commission's recommendations.