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Cook County's new judicial districts: Less or different politics?

When Llwellyn Greene-Thapedi, former president of the black lawyers' Cook County Bar Association, went before the Chicago Bar Association's (CBA) judicial evaluation committee in 1987, she recalls the first words spoken in the room were about her past activism on behalf of minorities.

Greene-Thapedi, who had been in the leadership of the black bar association for several years, was trying to become an associate judge. These judges are selected by the sitting circuit judges of Cook County from a bar-endorsed list of candidates. Greene-Thapedi did not get the CBA endorsement, and she recalls that the committee never even asked about her legal qualifications. "When I think about the questions put to me, they were not about my abilities as a judge," Greene-Thapedi says now. ''They had to do with articles I'd written and statements I'd made on behalf of the Cook County Bar Association to the effect that there must be more blacks on the judiciary."

Greene-Thapedi says she's not bitter about that experience. She didn't even want to discuss it at first, saying it's a problem that has been laid to rest with the advent of a new method of electing judges in Cook County. Greene-Thapedi plans to run for judge in 1992 from one of 15 new judicial subdistricts that she and other minorities believe will allow blacks, Hispanics, Asians and women a chance to circumvent the old boys' network they believe has kept them off the Cook County bench. She also believes the new subdistricts "will provide a real opportunity for the little people to have a say about who will decide the cases that are so important to them."

State Rep. Paul Williams (D-24, Chicago) was one of the sponsors of the subdistrict legislation last session. He said Greene-Thapedi's experience was not unusual: "The same thing happened with others who had distinguished records in the legal community and commitment to the community. They were turned down because they were advocates."

The system that will be changed by Senate Bill 798 (Public Act 86-786) now has 177 Cook County circuit judges with 56 elected from the city of Chicago, 27 elected from the rest of the county and 94 elected at large from the entire county. There are also 204 appointed associate circuit court judges. Cook County is also the 1st Judicial District for the at-large election of Illinois appellate judges and Supreme Court justices. Cook County now elects 20 appellate judges (the four other Illinois judicial districts elect four each) and three Supreme Court justices (the other four downstate districts elect one justice each).

In 1989, among the 177 Cook County circuit judges, there were 21 (12 percent) blacks and no Hispanics or Asians. During the same year, 21 blacks (10 percent) and two Hispanics (0.9 percent) served among 204 appointed associate judges. Among the 20 appellate judges, there were six blacks and one Hispanic. The three Supreme Court justices are white males.

Politically, Democrats dominate the Cook County judiciary. In 1989, only 25 circuit judges and 16 associate judges were Republican. By gender, males dominate: In 1989, there were 17 women (9 percent) serving as full circuit judges and 29 (14 percent) serving as associate judges in Cook County.

By 1992, under provisions of Senate Bill 789, 15 judicial subdistricts will be drawn for the election of nine Cook County circuit judges from each. Besides the 135 circuit judges elected by the subdistricts, there will be 104 instead of 94 judges elected at large by the entire county. While the total number of elected full circuit judges rises to 239, the 204 appointed associate judgeships will decrease to 149. The region will also be divided into five appellate subdistricts, which will each elect two appellate judges, with 14 elected at large. Supreme Court justices will still be elected at large.

The bill is written so that the transition process will be gradual. Judges now sitting will not have to run for election in the subdistricts; their ability to run for retention has been "grandfathered" in. The new system depends on the occurrence of judicial vacancies. As the first associate judgeships come vacant before 1992, interim appointments will be made to full circuit court judgeships, which will then be up for election in 1992. The first of each six vacancies will become at-large seats and the remaining five will become resident or subdistrict judgeships.

The transition process has already begun to cause befuddlement in the Illinois court system. According to one court official who asked to remain anonymous, "It's going to be mass confusion until someone files a lawsuit" to get clarification. But so far, no judge or judicial hopeful has been brave enough to do so.

It's anybody's guess how long it will take for enough judicial vacancies to occur for the act to be finally and fully implemented, but according to the same court official, recent turnover among judges has been high, and by 1996 enough vacancies will have occurred so that the act will be fully in effect. Rep.

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Williams said his "optimistic" estimate is that there will be 60 vacancies as early as 1992.

The boundaries for the subdistricts will be drawn by the General Assembly in 1991 based on the 1990 census. Carving Cook County into these judicial subdistricts promises to be as intense politically for the General Assembly as its redrawing of General Assembly districts and Illinois' congressional districts all going on at the same time.

Rep. Williams and others who backed S.B. 789 hail the new subdistricts as "revolutionary." They suggest that higher quality judges will be elected and that they will be less politically dependent on a central committee of Democratic slatemakers. Most observers agree the subdistricts will mean more black and probably more Hispanic judges in Cook County. But there is no agreement that the quality of the judges elected from subdistricts will be higher than that of present judges. Some of the most vocal opponents to the law were and still are supporters of merit selection of judges. They charge that subdistricts will further politicize an already too political judiciary and spell the end of hope for merit selection of Illinois judges.

Illinois legislators were pressed by both a lawsuit and political reality to pass the bill last spring. Reps. Williams and Anthony Young (D-17, Chicago) and Sen. Miguel del Valle (D-5, Chicago) had filed a federal Voting Rights Act lawsuit against the state of Illinois in April 1988, charging that the way Cook County elected its judges disenfranchised minorities. About the same time the Black Caucus in the General Assembly formed a coalition with Hispanic and Republican lawmakers to push for the subdistricting bill. In one sense, passage of the legislation may be viewed as a sign of increasing political sophistication among black and Hispanic lawmakers in Springfield. All Democrats, they held out for a trade with Democrat leaders who wanted their tax package passed. They threatened to join with the minority Republicans who stood to gain more Cook County judgeships under the subdistrict plan.

The Voting Rights Act lawsuit, filed in federal court in Chicago, contended that at-large voting districts diluted black voting strength and violated Section 2 of the act. The plaintiffs were represented by Springfield attorney James C. Craven, who won a voting rights suit based on the same section against the city of Springfield. Some legal analysts contend that the Voting Rights Act does not apply to the election of judges, who are theoretically not chosen as representatives in the same sense as legislators, but federal courts in Louisiana, Ohio and Mississippi have held that the act does apply.

The suit was dismissed by federal Judge James Grady on June 30, 1989, at almost the same hour as the legislature passed S.B. 789, 112-4 in the House and 57-1 in the Senate. Plaintiffs, however, said they don't believe the dismissal was a trade-off for the legislation. (The dismissal is on appeal.) Proponents of the bill such as Rep. Young contend that the threat of a Hispanic/ black/GOP coalition not the lawsuit nor the compromise to drop election of Supreme Court justices by subdistricts was the main impetus for white Democratic support.

"The legislature passed the bill because there was a coalition of blacks and Republicans," Young said. "It was something that the Democratic powers-that-be were initially vehemently opposed to. It just came down to politics. The entire Black Caucus solidified around the issue while the Democratic machine tried to pick off individual members. I doubt if we could have done it in any other year except when there were four tax increases the Democrats wanted to pass and couldn't pass without black votes."

Rep. Young and others are banking on that same threat to keep their interests intact through the next hurdle: drawing the subdistricts themselves. "With legislative reapportionment taking place at the same time, the speaker and the Senate president will not want blacks and Republicans to get together again,'' Young predicted. He said some blacks wanted to draw the map immediately after the bill passed, but because the 1990 census is expected to add as many as 100,000 more Hispanics in Cook County, backers of the bill decided to wait.

Although women as a group were not universally supportive of the measure, they may benefit from the new subdistricts, according to the law's supporters. Chicago lawyer and lobbyist Julie Hamos is one woman who believes the law will open the bench to women as well as minorities. Hamos wrote an article promoting subdistricts for the Women's Bar Association of Illinois. "I think women will have a better chance to run from local districts than citywide," Hamos said. "That has always been true of school district elections, which were a traditional entree for women in politics [outside Chicago] and for people who were not political insiders. It has always been true that who you knew in the party leadership more than your accomplishments as an attorney helped you. You not only had to know the leaders but the downtown leaders the big guys. Having a smaller district in your own neighborhood gives you a much better chance to run for this office or any office. I have been walking through this selection process for years with my women friends and they have not been able to get through it."

'It has always been true that who you knew in the party leadership more than your accomplishments as an attorney helped you. You not only had to know the leaders but the downtown leaders the big guys'

While blacks and Hispanics and some women are celebrating what they view as new access to the judiciary, proponents of merit selection remain vehemently opposed to the new law. Jeffrey Gilbert, president of the Chicago Council of Lawyers (CCL), called the law "the judicial patronage act'' in a point-of-view column written for the Chicago Tribune. The CCL put together a coalition for merit selection called Citizens for Court Reform that urged Gov.

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James R. Thompson not to sign the bill into law.

Those who have called for merit selection in the past are making dire predictions about the effect of the new law. Said the court reform coalition's director, Donna Schiller, "Every lawyer in the subdistricts will be responsible for giving [campaign] money to the elected judge. It just gives me nightmares." Said Gilbert, "I still feel that in smaller districts, the weight of the delivered vote will be all the heavier. It's already the case that few people vote for judge as compared to races at the top of the ticket. People who vote for judge are voting the party recommendation. They are the ones holding the precinct captain's list."

Gilbert believes the passage of the subdistricting bill has put off "for a generation" any chance of merit selection becoming a reality in Illinois. But he says he and others will not give up the fight because a system with a political judiciary "is a system with a fundamental flaw.'' Gilbert supports the idea of getting more minority and female representation on the Cook County bench, but he contends merit selection could have accomplished that without politics. "Having qualified and minority or female judges is not mutually exclusive. I don't have any problem with making express affirmative action provisions to do that." He said he has supported a merit selection plan for Cook County that involves three subgroups, including Hispanics, blacks and women, to make judicial selections.

What will happen under the new law, according to Gilbert, sine exclusion of "those people who have no basis for political backing by whatever partisan groups exist in the small areas. They will then be exclusive of the very kind of people you want to be judge people who are not political or who have had the integrity to rule against the existing political group." Gilbert's favorite example of how this will happen is the way former Cook County Democratic Chairman and 10th Ward Aid. Edward Vrdolyak tried to oust Cook County Judge Joseph Schneider for sometimes ruling in favor of pro-Harold Washington forces in contested election matters during the Chicago City Council wars. According to Gilbert, "The next time Schneider ran for retention, if he had been running only in the 10th Ward, he would have lost. It was clear that Vrdolyak was sending a message in his ward, 'Get rid of this guy because he won't do outbidding.' The people the Vrdolyaks of Cook County can own and control will win in subdistricts."

Also worried about the new law is the Cook County Courtwatchers, a citizens group of about 150 people that reports to the chief judge periodically on their courtroom observations. Said Jeanette Boulet, the group's director, "A basic issue for us is the notion that judges should be representative of a small segment of the community. We believe that's a mistake. Judges are not and should not feel they need to represent a particular constituency. It is the essence of a judge's job to represent the interests of the broader community."

supporters of a merit selection system talk of filing a lawsuit challenging the law's provision as it relates to subdistricts for appellate judgeships. Although the Illinois Constitution does allow for subdistricts for selecting circuit court judges, Constitutional Convention testimony may indicate that delegates specifically opposed subdistricts for the appellate courts.

To proponents of the subdistricts, however, the foregoing arguments seem either theoretical gobbledygook or worse, insidious veiled attempts by those in power to stay there. "Justice is not blind even though it's supposed to be," said Sen. del Valle, who as a lawyer worked in the Hispanic community. "We want people on the bench with cultural knowledge, people with understanding. When you live in Humboldt Park and are dealing with cases that have language barriers and cultural differences and you have judges who don't understand, you have a problem."

Basically, proponents of the bill have two general responses to those who favor merit selection. One is that the Cook County bench is already controlled by a central political system, and diffused political control will be at least an improvement on that. Their second argument is that the judicial selection system is already "appointive" since more than half the judiciary associate judgeships are appointed, and they are often the first step to full circuit judgeships.

"Let's be realistic in looking at how political the system already is," said Rep. Williams. "What is it that people look for when they are electing a judge? They want someone fair and honest. A lot of that knowledge comes from a community reputation. Under the present system, you have no way of knowing anything about that community reputation. We say by making the district smaller, you allow citizens to know the candidate.'' Rep. Williams said the 300,000-voter districts will be similar in size to downstate districts and asks, "What is wrong with local people having a say?"

"You also remove the ability of the central committee to control every judicial seat that exists," Rep. Williams adds. "Under our system, you can remove a judge from a case close to his community. Under the present system, the central political committee controls who gets elected. There is no independence."

Minority groups have long been opposed to merit selection, which they charge would simply close the door even tighter on minority representation. They also contend that the present system's appointive aspects have been an accurate preview of what merit selection would be like in Cook County.

"Anyone who wants to see how merit selection works should look at Cook County now," said Rep. Young. "Almost 80 percent of the sitting Cook County judges were appointed at some time. All the judges in [the] Greylord [investigation] are exactly the type of judges that would have been appointed in a merit selection system." Rep. Williams went further in blasting merit selection, charging that those who support an appointive system have hidden agendas of their own. "The reality of it is that these people who are making this claim [for merit selection] are the very people who control the system now. Even the do-good groups like the Chicago Council of Lawyers have maximum influence in the system now. The thought that people don't have the right to say who will judge them is absurd."

Already, the subdistricting of Cook County's judicial region has begun to disrupt business as usual in the elective court system. Come 1992, the subdistricts will be in place, testing the predictions dire and optimistic of who will wind up on the bench in Cook County courtrooms.

Nina Burleigh is a Chicago freelance writer and Former Statehouse correspondent for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.

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