Is this the way to select good judges?

Ed Murnane Sep. 30, 2007, 5:00am

Illinois' judicial system has been branded as one of the worst in the nation in two separate evaluations: the respected Harris International survey and the American Tort Reform Association's annual "judicial hellholes" report showing three Illinois counties to be among the worst in the country.

Admittedly, many of the participants in these surveys are business-oriented. But that means they are the job-creators, the employers, the tax-payers, and they also are physicians and hospitals and other health care providers.

There is no doubt that the politicization of the judicial system is a major cause of the problem.

We've harangued -- even whined -- about Illinois' procedure for selecting judges.

Here is Example Number One of why our current process should be changed.

The Chicago Sun-Times recently reported on the slating process used by the Democratic Central Committee of Cook County.

One Supreme Court seat, two Appellate Court seats, and nine open Circuit Court seats will be on the ballot in November 2008.

In a two-day meeting at the Palmer House Hilton on Sept. 6 and 7, the Cook County Democratic ward and township committeemen determined who would fill those vacancies. Case closed. End of story.

There are many honorable and distinguished members of the Democratic Central Committee of Cook County. And they have slated several excellent candidates for judge: Anne Burke for Supreme Court is one. There may be others.

But is this the way judges should be selected? Unless lightning strikes, the nine circuit court candidates selected by the Cook County Democratic politicians will become judges next November. (Some will begin earlier, to fill vacancies).

No Republicans are likely to challenge the slated Democrats, for good reason. In 2006, 11 Democrats slated for judicial office were unopposed by Republicans and thus elected. The pattern is the same as in 2004, and 2002, and going back every two years. Republicans can't win office in Cook County, including judicial office, so the Democrat establishment can pick who it wants to administer justice in the largest and most active judicial jurisdiction in Illinois and one of the largest in the nation.

Elsewhere in Illinois, there have been (and in some cases still are) other judicial selection processes that challenge the concept of judicial impartiality and balance.

Trial lawyers have controlled much of Southwestern Illinois, at least until recently. Republicans -- yes, even Republicans -- have controlled the process in some heavily Republican-dominated counties.

But none of the other regions in Illinois approaches the size and importance (judicially, at least) of Cook County: three of the state's seven Supreme Court justices are from Cook; 18 of 42 appellate judges are from Cook; and 268 of 518 circuit judges are from Cook.

More suits are filed in Cook County than any other jurisdiction; more money is awarded in Cook County trials and settlements; and, as indicated in the Sun-Times article and as confirmed year after year, there is more political influence and control over the judiciary in Cook County than any other place in Illinois.

This is the strongest argument -- perhaps the only valid argument -- for Illinois to call a constitutional convention next year.

Several public opinion surveys in Illinois have shown that voters prefer electing judges to a system of "merit selection," in which judges are appointed following a non-partisan evaluation process.

If Illinois voters are not willing to go that far, we should at least take steps to make judicial elections non-partisan.

(The ICJL has not taken a position on the call for a Constitutional Convention).

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