Illinois has a long history of electing its judges.
It’s something the state has done since 1848, according to Ann Lousin, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who helped draft Illinois’ current constitution approved in 1970.
Lousin says Illinois is one of 39 states that elect at least some (in Lincoln Country, most) of the judiciary.
“We elect most of our judges,” Lousin said. “There is a group of judges called associate circuit judges who handle the trials, and there are about 400 of them across the state, and they are part of the circuit court. They are appointed for a four-year term by the elected circuit judges.
Especially in Chicago, the slew of judicial candidates can make for a long ballot that voters may find exhausting or confusing.
Bars can help can help.
They publicly distribute ratings indicating whether they have deemed a candidate qualified (or not) and usually include an explanation.
Chicago Bar Association Judicial Evaluation Committee Chairman Brian Boyle said there is work to be done in the scoring process. Candidates must answer a confidential questionnaire; members of the association interview references; a committee auditions the candidates.
Boyle said each candidate is treated “fairly and equitably” as potential judges are judged on criteria including legal expertise, legal ability, demeanor, work ethic and other qualifications such as commitment to public service.
Boyle said an unqualified rating should not be considered a permanent black mark. A candidate may have been a lawyer for a decade, rather than the dozen years the association is looking for.
Then again, it could be down to something more egregious.
The lesson: Read the fine print.
The Illinois Supreme Court is a seven-member body and justices win 10-year terms. After initially doing so on the bench, in subsequent decades they are poised for what is called “retention” in which judges must meet a threshold of 60% of voters.
As with the Chicago City Council and the Illinois Legislature, the map of Supreme Court districts is new in 2022, due to redistricting.
Unlike those other bodies, however, the Supreme Court’s map has changed for the first time in decades.
Many court watchers believe adjustments are overdue because the northern part of the state — DuPage, Lake, Winnebago, Boone, DeKalb — have all grown in population while some areas further south have lost residents.
These are long-standing trends, and even when the population has changed, the map has remained the same despite the legislature having had the opportunity to make updates.
Lousin said the impetus to make changes came after Justice Thomas Kilbride, a Democrat, became the first Illinois Supreme Court justice to lose a 2020 retainer bid.
“Immediately the Illinois General Assembly, primarily the Democratic Party, said ‘we will have to redraw the districts.’ The argument is made, they redraw the districts to have at least one downstate Democrat to combine with the three from Cook County, would make a permanent Democratic majority,” Lousin said. “We’ll see if that turns out to be the case.”
According to the state constitution, three of the seven justices of the Supreme Court are elected at large from the First District which includes Cook County; all three seats are held by Democrats.
Changes in the shape of other districts combined with vacancies mean partisan battles are expected in the Third District. That post was left by Kilbride and is currently held by Republican Justice Michael Burke, who is seeking to win the race this fall against Democratic Court of Appeals Justice Mary O’Brien.
The second district will also likely be competitive. That seat was held by Justice Bob Thomas, who retired in 2020. The remainder of his ten-year term is held by Justice Robert Carter, who is not running to retain the seat.
Suburban voters will first have choices to make in the primary election.
The Democrats running for the Second District seat are: Kane County Judge Rene Cruz, Lake County Associate Judge Elizabeth Rochford, and Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering.
As Republicans, former Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran, Appeals Judge Susan Hutchinson, Kane County Circuit Court Trial Judge John Noverini and Associate Chief Judge of the 19th Judicial Circuit Daniel Shanes of Lake County.
Lousin says these races don’t often get much attention from the media or voters.
The furor over the US Supreme Court decision on abortion illustrates the importance of the judiciary.
Judges are also important at the state level, Lousin said.
“We had a very powerful Illinois Supreme Court. They run the entire judicial system through a system of rules. They make appointments to fill vacancies for example,” Lousin said. “They publish the rules of evidence for the courts in Illinois. This is very important to all ongoing business in Illinois. The Supreme Court has what is called “the supervisory authority”. And that means a lot of things – we don’t know what the limits are.
The court also hears cases that emanate from the appellate level, major election cases, and decides state constitutional issues.
Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @amandavinicky