Why do we elect partisan judges in Illinois?
Why do we allow political bosses determine who our judges will be?
Beginning late last week, and continuing through the weekend, the major -- and shocking -- news story in Southern Illinois, and among many Illinoisans who weren't caught up in the Memorial Day holiday, was the latest judicial scandal.
This isn't about the Chief Judge in St. Clair County getting busted for drunk driving after a St. Louis Rams game. This isn't about the Madison County asbestos court judge taking campaign contributions from asbestos lawyers w
ho appeared to be getting favorable trial slots.
This wasn't about a St. Clair County judge deciding not to seek retention -- the normal way for an Illinois judge to get another term -- but instead to "run" for his seat because he knew he would not get the 60% needed to be retained, but thought he had a better chance to get a new term by running as if he were just another candidate. He was right. It was easier to get the 53% he got than it would have been to get the 60% to be retained. He successfully manipulated the system to get another term, to hold on to his black robe for six more years.
No, this is about one associate judge who was appointed just last year and who died of cocaine intoxification, according to court records, and another judge facing federal charges of possessing a weapon while using drugs, and possession of heroin. The associate judge who died served for less than two weeks.
The judge who is alive -- and facing likely career-ending charges -- is the son of Bruce Cook, a high powered personal injury lawyer and major financial backer of the Democrat Party at the local and national levels.
There undoubtedly is a lot to this sad story that has not been revealed yet -- but regardless of what comes out in the weeks and months ahead, it is a tragic story for families involved and -- once again -- it focuses unfavorable attention on a judicial system in Illinois that needs reform.
At the opposite end of Illinois, the judicial system in Cook County continues to attract -- and deserve -- unfavorable attention and commentary.
Other states don't do it the Illinois way. There are a variety of processes in play for appointing or electing judges. It seems that all of them are better than what we do right now and seem destined to continue to do -- allow political bosses IN BOTH PARTIES to hand-pick the judicial prospects who will appear on the crowded Illinois ballot and assume, justifiably, that the voters will never have a chance or desire to study or learn about the candidates' qualifications.
There are simply too many on the ballot -- the same ballot that is calling for voters to select between candidates for President of the United States, for Governor, for County Board Presidents, for Members of Congress and the United States Senate, for State Senators and State Representatives.
Next year, throughout Illinois, there will be more than 200 judicial offices on the Illinois ballot. Some will involve sitting judges seeking "retention" and others will involve open judicial seats and have two or more candidates contesting in the primary -- when they run as Republican or Democrat -- and then again in the November General Election.
When the current Illinois Constitution was approved in 1970, voters were given a choice to continue to elect judges or to implement some system of "merit selection."
The voters chose to continue to elect judges so it likely will require a constitutional amendment to change the way judges are selected.
The Illinois Civil Justice League has proposed a change in the judicial selection process in Illinois -- as have other organizations and interests.
Our proposal calls for continued election of judges but requires bi-partisan screening and approval of candidates before they get on the ballot.
It would require candidates to actually be screened and evaluated by a balanced bi-partisan panel that would include an equal number of lawyers and non-lawyers and an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. To get on the ballot, a judicial-hopeful would need support from at least six of the eight panel members so a prospective judicial candidate would need support from Democrats and Republicans, and support from lawyers and non-lawyers.
There are other ways in which the Illinois system could be changed. The fact that Illinois voters once chose between election and merit-selection and opted in favor of electing may be an obstacle to changing the election system.
But a proposal such as the ICJL's would continue the election process, but would likely end the cronyism that leads to the kind of headlines that appeared in every newspaper in Southern Illinois, and many nationally, this week. It would screen the candidates before they earned a spot on the ballot.
From one end of Interstate 55, in Cook County, to the other end of Interstate 55, in Madison and St. Clair Counties along the Mississippi River, the judicial selection system in Illinois is broken and needs to be replaced.
Ed Murnane is President of the Illinois Civil Justice League.