Long gone are the days when judicial elections were down-ballot races barely noticed by voters in which party affiliation and a familiar name was all that mattered.
Long gone are the days when what lawyers thought could turn a race for judge.
The Illinois State Bar Association released its endorsements in judicial races last week, which commend and condemn the usual suspects. Republican candidates Don Weber, Steve McGlynn, and Paul Evans were "not qualified" or "not recommended." All of the Democrats-even those who hadn't even served on the bench-- earned "highly qualified" ratings.
The numbers were blatant so as to be staggering.
Only 36% of lawyers felt Madison County Judge Weber was qualified, compared to 92% for his opponent, Democrat asbestos attorney Dave Hylla. Democrat St. Clair County Judge Lloyd Cueto earned 90% support from the lawyers polled, while his GOP challenger Paul Evans earned just 50%.
Let us be the first to notice that, in our first election year since the tumultuous 2004, the Empire doth protest too much.
Running up the score on the Republicans in a lawyers' poll won't impress Metro East voters picking judges this fall. If we were one of the venerated ones, we'd shudder to wonder whether the endorsement of a lawyers' group might have a negative impact here in Southern Illinois, the place where lawsuit abuse went too far.
Not that it's easy to shake the confidence of our plaintiff's bar. Big heads will prevail, indeed.
"These results are a report card given by those who know the most," said Belleville lawyer Christopher Cueto, brother of Lloyd, patting himself on the back in the Belleville News-Democrat.
In this flash of self-flattery, Cueto was at least partially accurate. Lawyers do know the most about their judges-if only personally.
Consider that Madison County's finest knew all about Judge George Moran's foibles-- ethical and otherwise-- long before their recent revelation embarrassed him off the bench. But as years passed they never made a peep about it-- even going so far as to strongly recommend Moran during his last re-election run-- until it became clear that the details could leak to the press.
That they did serves as evidence that the judicial campaign rules have changed for the better. Just posting that "qualified rating" from the venerable bar association in your direct mail piece and on palm cards won't cut it anymore. These days, judges have to run for real. That means real platforms, real campaigns, and real accountability.
Whose opinion of a judge could possibly be more enlightened than that of a lawyer?
That of a voter, that's who. We'll find out which judges are really "recommended" come November.