Who is judging the judges? Issues of qualification

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For many of us, the only image we have of a judge comes from movies or TV shows. For the next four nights, we’re going to show you a lot of them by asking a simple question: Who is judging the judges?  You might be surprised. Our joint WGN investigation with the Medill Watchdogs of Northwestern exposes where the majority of least qualified judges are coming from.

For the first time ever, as the curtain draws back allowing cameras in Illinois to peek into some courtrooms, viewers are getting a glimpse at the absolute power behind the robe.  Cameras have yet to be allowed in Cook County and unless you are before a judge, you probably can’t name any of the 400-plus judges or which ones you voted for in the last election.

Two decades ago, the leaders in Springfield tried to fix the problem of too many unknown judges by breaking up the massive list into smaller bite-sized subcircuits. It seemed like a win-win, these subcircuits. Neighbors could meet the judicial candidates because they lived there. The winning judge would be from their community bringing more minorities to the bench. In Cook County, that even meant Republicans. A good idea with good intentions, but like the old proverb says, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

When asked what he thought of subcircuits, Anton Valukas, a lawyer and Chairman of Jenner & Block said, “I think they’re terrible.”

Nearly 30 years ago, Valukas as U.S. Attorney oversaw the prosecution of one of the largest court scandals in the United States: Operation Greylord. Charges of bribery, fixing a murder case, even a wiretap in a judge’s chamber led to 92 indictments including the conviction of 15 judges. According to Valukas, “All of a sudden everybody got religion, as they say in the trade. So I would say corruption is not the issue right now.”

Instead, Valukas says the problem is weak judges created by the subcircuit system.

“The issue right now is competence and the fact that you continue to have politics involved in this process always opens the door to the potential of corruption in the future. So why have a system that does that?” he says.

He added that unlike judges who run countywide, the candidates who run for one of the 15 smaller subcircuit seats rarely face tough challengers. Most are always backed by the Democratic Party, they rarely have to prove their judicial chops to win.

“I think it probably has not been the best way to improve the quality of our judiciary,” said Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin. Suffredin is also the attorney for the Chicago Bar Association, a group that rates the qualifications of judicial candidates. “I think if you look at the judges who have had problems in the last 20 years, a greater percentage of them have been elected from the subcircuits than have been elected countywide.  I think those who are elected countywide are vetted in a much different way.  It’s a tougher race to run.  I mean this is a huge county.  And they have to present their credentials to a lot of different people,” said Suffredin.

Like the Chicago Bar Association, a host of other legal watchdogs judge the judges on integrity, legal knowledge, temperament, and even punctuality. We checked the rankings and last year, a half-dozen judges elected to the bench failed to win the approval of three or more groups and five of those were subcircuit judges.

According to Suffredin, “I think what they do is create an artificial world in which people run.  One of the things we see is that the candidates who run in the subcircuits in a greater proportion choose not to be evaluated by the Bar Association, choose not to present their credentials to a broader group of citizens to determine why they would be good judges or bad judges.” In other words, they’re avoiding being judged.

Newly-elected Judge Daniel Degnan from the 3rd subcircuit didn’t bother to submit his qualifications. His dad was a top strategist for Mayor Daley. Prior to Election Day; one by one all his opponents dropped out, including a sitting judge. Degnan waltzed unopposed to the bench. Judge Kimberly Lewis was never vetted failing to submit her credentials to any legal watchdog. She beat out a sitting judge ranked qualified.

In 2010, four judges failed to win approval, three of them from subcircuits. In 2008, six out of seven judges not recommended came out of the subcircuit. And in 2006, five out of six judges were also from a subcircuit which raises the question, who’s judging the judges? According to Valukas, “No one! In the subcircuits even fewer than no one if that’s possible. You’re talking about in the subcircuits the likelihood of the person who is judging the judges and most likely to make the decision who’s going to be elected judge is some political boss.”

Take the case of Judge Leida Gonzalez-Santiago. She benefited from the subcircuit law which you recall encouraged neighborhood diversity. She was the first Hispanic woman elected to the bench even though the Tribune reported a Hispanic Bar Association called her unqualified.  Yet she won with the backing of House Speaker Mike Madigan and her own husband, a state representative. And once a judge is elected, it’s pretty much a job for life no matter how competent. Six years later, she won again even after a lawyers group blasted her for putting kids at risk during custody battle cases.

Valukas called it, “A crisis in your world. They’re before a judicial system asking somebody to make a decision on something that could be incredibly important to them. Anything from a divorce case, a child custody case to a property damage case you name it and they are before someone who may not even know the rudiments of the law and whose temperament maybe an absolute disaster. That’s not a way you have a system.”

None of the judges we identified returned our phone calls. The issue of qualification is only one subject we examined. Tomorrow we’ll look at how a system designed to bring minorities to the bench is being abused.

For more information, log on to the Medill Watchdog website.

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