Our view: Changes needed to ensure better judges
The lamentable case of Cook County Circuit Court Judge Cynthia Brim, who has been on the bench since 1994 despite suffering from a serious mental illness and displaying strange behavior at times, has pushed the Legislature to consider changing the state’s judicial selection system.
It’s a system plagued with political influence that results in too many mediocre or unqualified judges, particularly in areas such as Cook County that are dominated by a political party. It’s badly in need of reform.
Sadly for everyone, the same rules that place an unrealistic burden on the electorate — evaluating judges’ performance and voting out the bad ones — require scaling a tall hill for reform. Changing the way judges are chosen requires a constitutional amendment, and the same party that most controls the current “don’t ask-don’t tell” judicial atrophy, the Democrats, must spearhead that repair.
The best system would be one of merit selection, where a commission of legal experts selects judges. The chance of that in Illinois is remote for the foreseeable future. But two workable alternatives have surfaced in the Legislature, and either is preferable to what we have now.
State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) offers a hybrid system in which special commissions in each judicial circuit determine which judges are performing well, and they wouldn’t have to seek retention. Those found wanting would still need to be retained, but the theory is that with far fewer judges on the ballot voters might make better decisions.
State Sen. Bill Cunningham (D-Chicago) would raise the percentage of “yes” votes needed for retention from 60 percent to two-thirds. To be elected or retained, judges also would need the support of a special commission of the state Supreme Court.
Without change, the circumstances that led to the Brim fiasco could be repeated. The Democratic Party backed her for retention every six years despite the bar associations repeatedly finding her unqualified.
We must be sure that another Judge Brim cannot happen. The state constitution must be amended and the system changed.