Judging the judges: How could it be? Even the”Supremes” don’t follow the law

Who knew, of all people, the most powerful judges in the state are not following the law. All this week, we’ve exposed how judges in Cook County are skirting more than one law, like getting tax breaks where they shouldn’t or living outside of their courtroom subcircuit. But in tonight’s joint WGN investigation with the Medill Watchdog unit of Northwestern, some question why should they follow the law if their big brothers and sisters, the Supremes aren’t?

In Illinois no one has more power than the Supremes. These seven people can say yea or nay to any law passed in Springfield, including the requirement that a judge has to live in his or her subcircuit at the time of election. The Supremes ruled, they do. But it is the second part of the law that’s not so clear. It requires a judge to retain residency or stay living in the district for their six year term and beyond.

As you’ve seen in our investigation, “Judging the Judges” we’ve found judges finding ways around the residency rule without anyone questioning them. It raises questions about the need for subcircuits originally designed to have judges elected from the neighborhoods where they live. Robert Cummins once chaired the Judicial Inquiry Board, and is a watchdog agency for judges. When asked why we have subcircuits, Cummins responded, “If I was making the call, we wouldn’t.”

After all, why should a lower level judge worry about where he or she lives when the highest court in Illinois is ignoring the residency rules too. You see there is a law on the books for the Supremes too called the Judicial Vacancies Act. It says that they must appoint a judge to fill a Cook County subcircuit vacancy with someone from the subcircuit. They haven’t always done that.

According to Cummins, “Although some members of the court, the Supreme Court who are involved in appointments have a fairly credible screening committee that they’ve established, the process still, I think lacks credibility.”

Take Judge Lauretta Higgins Wolfson. She ran for election and lost. The Supreme Court then appointed her to the 13th subcircuit. The problem is Wolfson lives in a beautiful high-rise on the lake far away from the subcircuit serving Palatine, Schaumburg and Hanover Park.

Judge Allan Masters is serving as judge from Chicago’s north side after the Supreme Court put him there. However, he’s currently running for election from his actual subcircuit which is further away on the North Shore. Neither Judge would comment.

Then there is Freddrenna Lyle, a former alderman from the south side. After she lost her aldermanic election, the Court appointed her to fill-in as a judge. She’s bounced from the 2nd to the 7th both outside of her neighborhood. She’s running for Appellate Court judge this year. She  said she understood that if she wanted to run in the subcircuit she would have to move. That’s why she decided to run countywide for the Appellate Court.

Larry Suffredin represents the Chicago Bar Association, “The only person who can tell us what the law is and if it’s constitutional is the Illinois Supreme Court. And nobody has brought a case so it’s a little bit like challenging people’s addresses. If nobody challenges them the law just kind of evolves on its own.”

We asked to speak with the Supreme Court Justices about the law that appears to be ignored and we received this statement: “On matters of law, the Illinois Supreme Court speaks through its opinions. The eligibility and qualifications for election to judicial office are contained in the Illinois Constitution.”  So what does the Constitution say? To be a judge a candidate must be a U.S. citizen, a licensed attorney, and a resident of the unit which selects him.

For more on the investigation log on to Medill Watchdog website.

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