Lawyers in Illinois have until April 22 to evaluate associate judges (outside Cook County) in a poll conducted by the Illinois State Bar Association (ISBA).
The poll precedes a reappointment process that associate judges face every four years - even judges who haven't served full four-year terms, such as Barry Julian in Madison County and Jeffrey Watson in St. Clair County, both appointed in January.
While circuit judges are elected by voters to serve six-year terms, associate judges are elected in a secret vote by circuit judges - a process that is not open to the public.
According to a letter to lawyers about the poll from ISBA's Committee on Judicial Advisory Polls, evaluations should only be made if the lawyer has sufficient knowledge of the judge's qualifications in categories of integrity, impartiality, legal ability, temperament, court management, health, and sensitivity to diversity and bias. At the end of the survey, the lawyer checks "yes" or "no" as to whether the judge meets acceptable requirements of office.
Hightower and Schuette
Results of the poll will be released around May 8, according to the ISBA's Committee on Judicial Advisory Polls.
Balloting among circuit judges for the 13 associate seats in Madison (Third Judicial Circuit) and St. Clair County (Twentieth Judicial Circuit) should be getting under way in May with results normally announced in June. Associate judge terms begin July 1.
Four years ago, five Madison County associate judges got axed - Duane L. Bailey, Ben L. Beyers, II, Donald M. Flack, David Grounds and Elizabeth Levy.
They all reapplied, but only Flack made it back to the bench. Flack then resigned in February 2018 to join Armstrong Teasdale in St. Louis.
The 2015 firings, which included African-American associate judges Beyers and Bailey, prompted the Alton chapter of 100 Black Men to accuse Chief Judge Hylla and the other circuit judges of racism.
The organization's president Bobby Collins Sr. said in a letter that not retaining five associates was a "smoke screen" to avoid racial connotation in the removal of Beyers and Bailey.
Another fallout from the firings was a near 40 percent reduction in judicial resources. Hylla turned to the Illinois Supreme Court which recalled former circuit judges to temporary terms to help cover the judge shortage.
A total of 46 lawyers applied for the five vacancies - and those chosen were Sarah Smith, Jennifer Hightower, Maureen Schuette, Luther Simmons and Flack - all Democrats.
Schuette and Hightower are the only ones still serving as associate judges from the 2015 appointments. Smith was elected to a circuit seat in the last election and Simmons resigned In January 2018 to join the Simmons Hanly Conroy firm.
The elected judges' decision not to appoint any Republicans was criticized by then Madison County GOP chair Chris Slusser, who said, "you obviously have to be a Democrat or be an associate from a major asbestos firm... No one else need apply."