December 24, 2013



Several generations ago, the joke in Cook County legal circles was that judges were not born; instead, they were made – by the bosses of the Cook County Democratic Machine, and were doled out on the basis of ethnicity.

Now, the joke in Cook County legal circles are that judges are not born; instead, they’re named – by their parents, with a big assist from DNA.

Want to grow up to be a judge, a position which pays $183,000-a year? First, have the X chromosome; be a female. Second, be baptized in a Catholic Church, with a name like Colleen Kaitlin MacIntosh, Bridget Maureen O’Shaunnessy, or Kerry Deidre Kennedy. Third, go to law school locally, not on the East Coast or Berkeley. Fourth, be a Democrat. Fifth, be born in, live in, or have family in the Southwest Side 19th Ward. Sixth, go the work for the state’s attorney, attorney general, or corporation counsel, thereby making important connections and avoiding the risk of income loss in private practice. And seventh, run for judge in a primary against a bunch of men with non-Irish surnames.

If you are a male lawyer with a Greek, Italian, Polish, Slavic, Asian Indian, Pakistani, Asian, Hispanic or Russian surname, or any name endiing in a vowel, the reality is simple: Forget about it. You cannot win. You can only hope to get on the bench by appointment. An Irish, Scots, English or Germanic surname is obligatory, and having a gender-confusing first name such as Sean, Kelly or Kerry helps.

Or just change your name. James G. Smith was elected to the Circuit Court in 1994 from a suburban subcircuit as a Republican. In 2000, he ran for the Appellate Court as a Democrat, and lost. In 2002, he ran for the Appellate Court again, this time as James Fitzgerald Smith, and won.

In 2014, there will be 11 judges elected countywide,  14 from 15 subcircuits, and three to the Appellate Court. In one race, the only Democrat is named Patricia O’Brien Sheahan. Why bother? She’s unbeatable.

At present, there are 24 justices from the 1st Appellate District, which is Cook County, all Democrats; of that number, 11 were appointed by the state Supreme Court, usually being elevated from the Circuit Court. There are 272 elected Circuit Court judges, paid $183,000, with 155 being elected from the county’s 15 subcircuits; they run for retention countywide every six years, and must get a 60 percent vote to stay on the bench. There are 143 associate judges, who earn $174,000, serve four years, and are appointed by their fellow judges. Each judge receives $500 annually from Cook County, entitling them to free health insurance; they also get an 80 percent pension.

Since  Republicans are never elected judge, the Democratic primary is the key.

The sticky point comes when a full judge retires, dies, resigns or is elevated. Then the appointee must run for nomination and election in the next election year. That means a lot of men with poly-syllabic names get appointed, but never spend more than two years as a judge.

In primaries past, a glut of lawyers flooded the ballot. In 2008, 24 candidates ran countrywide for judicial office; in 2010, 26 ran; and in 2012, 32 ran. Countywide, a total of 32 candidates have filed, with 14 to be nominated – about the usual number.

Why the low interest? First, campaign costs are rising. Slated candidates are required to pay the Democratic party the sum of $30,000. That $420,000 is used to defray literature printing and mailing expenses. Second, judicial ethics preclude judicial aspirants from taking positions on issues, or getting donations from special interests or corporations; hence, any campaign must be self-funded, with a few dollars from family, friends and fellow lawyers. A decent race costs $50-75,000.

Third, a lot of lawyers don’t think running for judge is worth their time. They may not have the right-sounding name, or not want to put their private practice and livelihood at risk. If they work for a large firm, many of which are downsizing, they cut their billable hours. They have to spend hours driving to various party functions, passing nominating petitions, getting 5,000-plus signatures, and donating to Democratic ward and township organizations.

Fourth, chairman Joe Berrios moved judicial slating to August. All the legal insiders were aware of that fact, but average lawyers weren’t. The attorneys with clout-heavy support, such as from Ed Burke, Mike Madigan, Dick Mell, Berrios, and the 19th Ward, got picked, and those who promised not to run in the 2014 primary if they were by-passed got a redeemable IOU for 2016 or 2018.

Voters know nothing about judicial contenders. Various bar associations make recommendations. Perhaps ten percent of the voters read the list and vote accordingly. But what if three or four candidates are all “qualified”? Then what? So voters look at name, gender and local party endorsement.

Here’s a look at 2014 contests:

Appellate Court: There are three vacancies. For the “Murphy vacancy,” David Ellis is unopposed. He lives in River Forest, and just happens to be the general counsel for the Speaker of the Illinois House – Madigan. What Boss Mike wants Boss Mike gets. Instead of spending a decade in the lowly Circuit Court, hearing tedious traffic, housing, juvenile or divorce cases, the Madigan connection rocketed Ellis straight to the Appellate Court. For the “Steele vacancy,” the slated choice is John Simon, son of the late Seymour Simon, lead partner at Jenner & Block, and close advisor to county board president Toni Preckwinkle; Simon will raise a bundle from Loop lawyers and Jewish groups. He will easily defeat Judge Sharon Odom Johnson.

The least predictable is the “Gordon vacancy.” Black Chicago Alderman Fredrenna Lyle (6th) was appointed to the Circuit Court in 2011, elected in 2012, and slated for the Appellate Court in 2013. But she has no clear shot. Also running are appointed Justice Sheldon Harris, and Circuit Judge Susan Kennedy Sullivan, elected in 2010, who sits in Juvenile Court. Also running is Nichole Patton. Can one man beat three women? Not likely. Lyle’s ballot name telegraphs her race; she will get solid black support. But Sullivan’s ballot name is pure gold. Sullivan will win.

Circuit Court: The “name game” is evolving fast and furious. For the “Egan vacancy,” Judge Daniel Kubasiak, who sits in traffic court, was slated; he is the only Polish-American on the slate. He was chief legal counsel to the council Finance committee during the Washington-Sawyer years, and has respect from black politicians. But he has two foes: Richard Ryan, from Evergreen Park, and Sarah Cunningham, from the 19th Ward. Two men, one Irish-surnamed woman; guess who wins?

For the “Arnold vacancy,” Judge Al Swanson, of River Forest, gets a second crack; he has the backing of state senator Don Harmon, who is close to Senate President John Cullerton. Swanson was appointed in 2011, lost in 2012, was re-appointed in 2013, and will likely lose in 2014. His opponent is Bridget Mitchell, a private practitioner from the 19th Ward.

For the “Connors vacancy,” another Madigan protégé has the inside track. Brendan O’Brien, formerly an attorney on the speaker’s staff, who now works for a blue-chip Loop firm, wasn’t slated. Nor was Peter Vilkelis, who sits in Juvenile Court. The slatee was Kristal Rivers, a black woman who spent 10 years with the Dallas, Texas prosecutor’s office, and practices condominium law. Vilkelis’s name is hopeless, but Rivers’s name doesn’t “sound black.” Toss-up.

For the “McDonald vacancy,” Cynthia Cobbs, a black former social worker who was once a judge in Will County, moved back to Orland Park, and was slated. Her name is neutral. She faces Linda Mastandrea, a disabled attorney who was on the mayor’s Olympic committee. Her vowel problem is fatal.

For the “Neville vacancy,” Bill Raines, a white former Chicago cop, sheriff’s deputy, and assistant state’s attorney, proved that persistence pays. He is a criminal defense attorney, and has been trying to get slated for a decade. He appeared before slatemakers in 2011, and extracted a promise of slating in 2013 if he didn’t run against the party in 2012. He delivered, and they delivered. He has three female foes: Carolyn Gallagher, a “real estate attorney” who lost her house due to a $170,000 tax lien, and Patricia Spratt and Alice Melchor. Raines will win.

For the “Reyes vacancy,” Maureen O’Donoghue Hannon, an assistant state’s attorney, will defeat the slated Diana Rosario and Greg LaPapa. No vowels.

For the “Veal vacancy,” black Judge Andrea Buford, who sits in traffic, was slated; she is well-known in black legal circles. Opposing her is James Patrick Crawley, an openly gay trial attorney, and Kelly Maloney Kachmarik, who has 19th Ward roots. Edge to Crawley.

In four other racers, the slate is unopposed: Maritza Martinez, Caroline Moreland, Thomas Carroll, and Sheahan.

Several subcircuit races are interesting. In the far northwest side 10th District, appointed Judge Tony Kyriakopoulos will give it the old college try. He faces Katherine O’Dell, daughter-in-law of heavyweight Chicago attorney Len Amari, who will be well-funded. Another no-brainer. O’Dell wins.

On the north Lakefront, where women always beat men, the predictable is inevitable. In one primary, Abbey Fishman Romanek faces four men; in another, Megan Goldish faces two men, including Judge Jerry Esrig; and in a third, Anjana Hansen, who is Asian, faces a man and a woman. All are backed by Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky’s (D-9) organization.

And lastly, in the Oak Park/36th Ward/38th Ward 11th subcircuit, Harmon will put another judge on the bench. Pamela Meyerson ran and lost in 2012, but she will beat three others in March.

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