November 27, 2019


The enduring perception surrounding a judge is that he or she is an all-knowing legal oracle who can endlessly dispense wisdom from the bench and ensure justice for all. After all, they must be gifted and special to be where they are.

I've been a lawyer for 40 years and it didn't take me more than a decade of practice to realize that the bulk of judges who were wearing black robes was because of a combination of biological (gender) and familial (surname) happenstance, Democratic slating, voter ignorance, ballot positioning, turnout and simple persistence. But there is a cost: an upfront, non-refundable deposit of $40,000 for those who get slated.

To be fair, there are probably a few Earl Warrens, John Marshalls, Louis Brandeis's and Ruth Bader Ginsburgs entwined in and among the state and county judiciary, but there are also a bunch of mediocre attorneys, political opportunists and time-servers who want to use their $207,000-a year job to get a comfy pension. Plus the job is neither labor- nor time-intensive.

There are 365 days in the year, of which 260 are non-weekend. Each judge gets five paid vacation weeks annually, plus pay on all court-closed holidays. Depending on assignment and longevity, the daily grind at the low end is between 4 to 6 in-court hours, a full day during sporadic trials, and just sitting around in the chambers at the high end, with Appellate and Supreme Court justices just contemplating while their law clerks read transcripts and draft opinions, which they then issue. According to my calculations the typical county judge makes about $920-a day, puts in much less than 40 hours a week, earns at least $18,400-a month, and faces the voters once - when initially elected. Thereafter, he or she is on the retention ballot every sixth year.

Then comes the bonanza: After 20 years on the bench (which is 3 retentions), a retiring judge gets 85 percent of their last year's salary, which would now be $176,000. It scales lower for those with less service. A judge with 12 years would make $145,000, or $10,000-a month for life, plus healthcare benefits. A retired judge can be a valuable "rainmaker," returning to practice with a prestigious law firm and bringing in clients, or becoming a court-paid or private mediator. Post-judge life is remunerative if one bails before age 60.

Not everybody, however, wants to be a judge. Really smart and successful lawyers who are equity partners in large firms don't want the pay cut, nor do younger lawyers on the partnership track. Plus, the food chain is not appetizing: New judges start out in Traffic court, then to Housing, then to Juvenile or Domestic Violence, or, if fortunate, civil Municipal or Divorce, then after 5-plus years to more tolerable Criminal, Probate, Law, or Chancery.

Those with that kind of patience fall into three categories: (1) ASAs and PDs, acronyms for assistant state's attorneys, who prosecute criminal and civil felonies and misdemeanors, number about 800, and earn $60-75,000, and public defenders, who represent poor perpetrators. Both have trial experience; they observe judges; and they want more money. (2) Struggling lawyers working 50-60 hours a week, who must gross $450,000 in fees to net $207,000, and want a normal life, prestige and a pension. (3) And female lawyers married with children who want a family-friendly, well-paying job, thereby doubling family income.

There are 365 elected Circuit Court judges, 104 countywide and 261 from the 15 subcircuits, 24 Appellate justices, and three state Supreme Court justices elected solely from Cook County. There are also 138 appointed associate judges. On the March 17 ballot are 13 county Circuit vacancies, a slew of subcircuit vacancies, including two each in the Northwest Side 10th and 9th subcircuits, and two Appellate and one Supreme Court vacancy.

There are naturally a slew of aspirants and a bunch of slates. But how does one win? It begins when you are born and if you're a boy or a girl. Also, do your parents have an Irish surname? And were you baptized as a Maureen, Colleen, Moira or Bridget? If so, you're on a track to be judge. Then happenstance ends, with a college and law degree obligatory, along with a legal job with connections.

And then comes the tricky part: Picking the right year to run and the right opponent to run against, which means a man - and definitely not another Irish-surnamed woman, because two of them in the same race will likely elect the man.

Ballot access is now less burdensome. It takes at least 3,900 nominating petition signatures to run for the 13 open judgeships. By bundling, which means putting a slew of wannabes on one petition, getting 15,000 signatures is easy.

DEMOCRATIC SLATE: Kerrie Maloney Laytin, Jill Rose Quinn, Maura McMahon Zeller and Lynn Weaver Boyle are all Irish-connected women; Araceli De La Cruz, Teresa Molina and Laura Ayala-Gonzalez are Latina women; Lloyd James Brooks, James Derico and Levander Smith are African-American men; Chris Stacey, a white man; and Sheree Henry, a PD, and Celestia Mays, both African-American women. So it's nine women and four men.

ASA/PD SLATE: ASAs Mike O'Malley, Amanda Moira Pillsbury, Lorraine Murphy, Jacqueline Griffin, Joy Tolbert Nelson, Aileen Bhandari and Megan Kathleen Mulay, plus FOP lawyer Sam Worley and civil attorney Elizabeth Walsh.

IRISH SLATE: Irish-surnamed women (hereinafter acronymed ISWs) from Sauganash-Wildwood on the far Northwest Side - Beth Ryan, Suzane McEneely, Jennifer Callahan and Heather Kent. They are running against the four slated men, have the same consultant, and are each spending $100,000 on billboards.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN SLATE: U. O'Neal and Tiesha Smith.

COSGROVE SLATE: Audrey Cosgrove, Joseph Chico, Russell Hartigan.

QUINN and O'MEARA SLATES, with several candidates, plus a few independents.

BELLOWS VACANCY: Laytin will beat Smith and Cristin McDonald Duffy, who was an alternate on the party slate.

COUGHLIN VACANCY: Ryan will beat Derico, Bhandari and Kelly McCarthy.

FORD VACANCY: Ayala-Gonzalez will beat O'Neal and John O'Meara.

FUNDERBURK VACANCY: Mays will beat Griffin and Quinn, and Cosgrove.

LARSEN VACANCY: McEneely will beat Smith and Mulay.

MASON VACANCY: Stacey will beat Callahan, Nelson, Chico and Bonnie McGrath.

McCARTHY VACANCY: Molina will beat O'Malley.

GORMAN VACANCY: Henry, with a South Side base, will beat Pillsbury, Keeley Hillison and Dan Walsh.

O"BRIEN VACANCY: Brooks will beat Kent and Elizabeth Walsh.

PATTI VACANCY: Boyle is unopposed.

ROTI VACANCY: De La Cruz will beat Lorraine Murphy unless James Crawley opts to run in the 10th subcircuit. Otherwise, Murphy wins.

COLLEEN SHEEHAN VACANCY: Zeller beats Hartigan, Deidre Baumann and Caroline Jamieson Golden.

KEVIN SHEEHAN VACANCY: Quinn beats Worley, Elizabeth Karkula, Marina Ammendola and Wendelin DeLoach. That's ten women winning, and 9-10 slatees.

The name of the judicial game is NAME and GENDER. Campaign money is not a factor in countywide races other than the Illinois Supreme Court, but it can be in the smaller subcircuit contests. Cook County's population is 5,204,502 and there are 1,443,261 registered voters in Chicago and 1,514,912 in the suburbs, for a total of 2,958,173. The key venue is the Democratic primary, where nominations are won. The 2016 presidential year primary turnout was 1,422,337 countywide, and it will be equal if not higher on March 17, 2020.

Those voting for judge in 2016 numbered 977,547, which meant that almost 450,000 voters did NOT cast a judicial ballot, almost 32 percent. The Democratic electorate is 55 percent women, and 40 percent minorities...and overwhelmingly liberal. To communicate with 950,000-plus judicial voters is impossible unless the candidate appends $1.5 million, as Shelly Harris did in a 2018 Appellate Court race. At least 400,000 votes are needed, maybe 300,000 in a multi-candidate contest. Some will be on the party sample ballot, or on a newspaper list of bar-approved candidates. But winning is mostly happenstance.

9TH SUBCIRCUIT (Luckman and Axelrod vacancies): This includes the 49th and 50th wards, plus Evanston and part of Northfield Township. Mike Strom was appointed to the Luckman vacancy and is opposed by Julie Aimen, who has strong support from Evanston and Jan Schakowsky and Larry Suffredin. Running for the Axelrod opening are former state senator Ira Silverstein, who lost in 2018 because of personal issues, appointed judge Tom Cushing of Northfield Township, Tim Carter, and Pam Stratigiakis. Silverstein's base is among Jewish voters, and Orthodox Jews in particular. Stratigiakis is the only woman and has a slight edge.
10TH SUBCIRCUIT (Allen and McGing vacancies): Appointed judge John Mulroe, a former state senator, is unopposed. Aspirants for the McGing vacancy are the slated Jon Stromsta, with a base in the 47th Ward, two-time 45th Ward aldermanic candidate John Garrido, a police lieutenant well-known in the district's center, and Maire Eileen Dempsey, an area attorney. Frankly, it' a toss-up.

Judge making is like sausage making. It's best not to know how it's done.

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