Kadner: Falling ice and picking judges
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org March 17, 2014 10:00PM
A sign warns pedestrians Friday of the possibility of falling ice along Wacker Drive. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times
Updated: April 19, 2014 6:18AM
Walking through downtown Chicago recently, I saw signs on the sidewalks that read, “Caution Falling Ice.”
As I avoided a bicycle messenger whipping around corners, sidestepped pedestrians on their cellphones, hurdled over broken cement and kept a sharp eye out for crazed cabbies and potential muggers, I wondered how I was supposed to protect myself from falling ice.
Keeping my face turned skyward did not seem like a reasonable option.
I find myself in a similar quandary when it comes to voting for Cook County Circuit Court judges.
How is an ordinary person supposed to know what to do when faced with a deluge of candidates whose names and qualifications are a mystery?
The tradition in the newspaper business is to tell people to check the ratings of the bar associations.
The Chicago Bar Association, for example, rates judicial candidates as highly qualified, qualified and not recommended.
Candidates who were “not recommended” have been known to win elections, suggesting that many people who vote don’t really care much whether a judge is qualified or not.
The Cook County Bar Association rates candidates as highly recommended, recommended, not recommended and not evaluated due to no fault of the candidate.
I guess that last category means that the members of the county bar didn’t have the time to review a candidate’s credentials, so the rest of us should just close our eyes and do an eeny, meeny, miny, moe sort of thing when we enter the polling place..
I’m not sure I like the idea of attorneys rating the judges who will try their cases. Sure, they know these people a lot better than the rest of us, but they also have a built-in conflict of interest.
Maybe they like a judicial candidate because he’s soft on crime or sympathetic to defense attorneys.
Or maybe they like a candidate because he’s likely to throw the book at an accused criminal.
Or maybe the guy used to drink with them all the time at their favorite watering hole.
Whatever the case, the only reason to put any stock in these sorts of ratings is that we lack any objective criteria for deciding who is qualified to be a judge.
I suppose there are some people, maybe many, who vote for a candidate for any office simply because he’s endorsed by a particular political party.
And I’ve had literature dropped in my mailbox telling me who the Democrats are endorsing in various judicial races.
That means something to me when it comes to candidates for statewide office, or even Congress, but not much when it comes to judges.
It could simply mean the favored candidate is a party hack who has done legal work for the Democrats or has a brother-in-law in the Legislature.
A guy like that could turn out to be a great judge, but he could also be the guy who someday decides whether your sister gets to retain custody of her daughter. If your sister’s husband happens to be related to a Democratic Party precinct captain, well, you get my drift.
Every judge is going to come to the bench with personal biases, but I would like to believe he could put them aside and make his decisions based solely on the law. Actually, I would also like to know the guy has some common sense, but that’s a pretty rare commodity in any line of work these days.
Still, I get phone calls and emails from readers asking me for advice when it comes to choosing candidates on the judicial ballot.
“You always tell us to vote on Election Day and tell people it’s up to them to be informed, but how do we decide who to vote for on the judicial ballot?” one reader asked.
I don’t have an answer.
I have asked judges and lawyers I respect, and they have each said something along the following lines: “I can tell you who to vote for if I personally know the individual, but I don’t know most of the people on the ballot myself.”
They then ask me for the names of particular candidates that I might be interested in.
I respond that I’m seeking guidance for my readers, the average voter, and that usually results in a sad face and a shake of the head.
“Check out the bar association ratings,” they say.
Some people tell me that the Cook County judicial system is just part of the Democratic political machine, with party bosses deciding what judges end up assigned to what courthouses.
Others tell me there are good candidates who never get elected to the bench because they don’t know how to raise money for a political campaign. And make no mistake about it, these judicial races are political campaigns.
A guy can be a very good lawyer, might even someday make an excellent judge, but if he doesn’t have an organization to distribute campaign literature, put up yard signs and get the word out that he’s running for office, he’s not going to win a judicial election.
That seems wrong to me. But that’s the system we’ve got in Cook County.
It would make more sense to have the Illinois Supreme Court select qualified candidates for judge and let voters decide from among them.
There are other reform measures that have been suggested, but none has ever taken hold because, well, the political bosses in Illinois like controlling these elections.
And because many voters are reluctant to cast ballots when we’re unfamiliar with the candidates, the parties get to pick the winners.
They make sure that their campaign workers turn out the vote for the party-backed candidates, and very often that’s sufficient to ensure victory.
I don’t know what to do about the judicial candidates or ice falling off skyscrapers.
An old fixer used to stick a $5 bill in his hand whenever he first met a judge. If the judge took it while shaking hands without saying a word, he figured he had his guy.
Too bad he never published a list of his recommendations for the rest of us.