The Illinois Supreme Court has repeatedly granted new life to judges after they were rejected by Cook County voters, despite promising to end the questionable practice nearly 20 years ago.
A Tribune review found that since 2000, the Supreme Court has reappointed 18 judges to the Cook County Circuit Court bench after they were turned away at the polls, including 13 currently hearing cases. Many of those judges are politically active Democrats.
Critics say the practice subverts the will of the voters and may violate the state constitution. Facing such criticism in 1993, the Supreme Court said it would stop, but it didn't.
Asked about that broken pledge this week, a Supreme Court spokesman told the Tribune that justices privately decided months ago they will no longer use their "recall" power to keep judges on the bench after they lose an election.
The news was greeted Thursday with cautious optimism by critics.
"We believe this (practice) is not authorized by the Illinois Constitution," said Malcolm Rich, executive director of the Chicago Council of Lawyers, which pushed for change in 1993.
Rich praised the court and said he hoped the justices would follow through this time. "We'll see how it all works out," he said.
The state constitution gives voters the responsibility of electing circuit, appellate and Supreme Court judges. But it also gives the seven Supreme Court justices the power to appoint some judges, including bringing retired judges back to the bench if their services are needed –- a practice known as recall.
Many of the 94 judges recalled to the bench statewide since 2000 were veteran judges brought out of retirement to fill temporary vacancies when another judge died or retired in a court circuit outside Chicago, the Tribune found.
But in Cook County, the court's definition of a retired judge has been expanded to include relatively new judges who lose elections. Those judges often are repeatedly reappointed and serve for years without having to face the voters again.
The Tribune's review shows the pattern usually goes like this: the Supreme Court appoints a lawyer to the bench, the newly minted judge later runs for election and loses, then the high court keeps the losing judge on the bench at the same salary and benefits.
In 2010, the court reappointed seven judges who lost Cook County elections. The year before, the court reappointed four judges who had lost in the 2008 Democratic primary.
David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said the court's actions appear disrespectful to the will of voters.
"The court should be aware of how the public will view them taking the voters' rejects and putting them right back on the bench," Morrison said.
The practice came under sharp criticism in 1993, when the Supreme Court recalled nine Cook County judges who had been defeated in the Democratic primary the prior year. The Chicago Council of Lawyers, which evaluates judges and has pushed for changes in how they are chosen, threatened to sue to stop the court.
The court responded by saying the practice would end. Instead, it lived on.
In 2009, the court reappointed 11 judges in Cook County, including four who had lost the Democratic primary in February 2008. The four are judges Martin Coghlan, the uncle of two other county judges; Lauretta Higgins Wolfson, the wife of a former appellate court judge; James Shapiro, who has contributed to Democratic campaigns; and Kenneth Fletcher. Another, Joan Kubalanza, was reappointed after failing to be picked as an associate judge and again after losing at the polls last year. Each was given a three-year term.
In 2010, the court reappointed 13 judges, including seven who lost elections in prior years. One was Michael Ian Bender, a judge's son who was appointed by the court in 2008, lost at the polls in 2010 and was recalled to the bench. Another, Pamela Leeming, was appointed by the court in 2009 after she failed to become an associate judge and reappointed after losing a 2010 election.
Fletcher declined to comment, and the other judges did not return messages.
State high court overrules voters on judge picks
Justices now say they've ended practice of appointing those rejected by the voters
We've upgraded our reader commenting system. Learn more about the new features.
Los Angeles Times welcomes civil dialogue about our stories; you must register with the site to participate. We filter comments for language and adherence to our Terms of Service, but not for factual accuracy. By commenting, you agree to these legal terms. Please flag inappropriate comments.
Having technical problems? Check here for guidance.