A Real Court of Public Opinion

Chicago elections can feel pointless, but voting to recall negligent judges is one way to make a difference.

By Sam Joyce

This year, Chicago’s midterm ballot starts off with a few intriguing contests, like the governor’s race between incumbent Bruce Rauner, a multimillionaire, and J. B. Pritzker, a billionaire. Both candidates have used their effectively infinite financial resources to establish themselves as ubiquitous and deeply annoying presences on the airwaves, as anyone who’s watched Hulu in the past several months can confirm. The Illinois Attorney General’s race is also a competitive match-up, with Hyde Park resident and State Senator Kwame Raoul facing off against Erika Harold, who has raised $1.7 million from Kenneth Griffin, UChicago’s own economics department benefactor.

As a Floridian, I’m used to these kinds of contentious races, as elections for all sorts of state and local offices are often quite competitive. In Chicago, however, the number of competitive elections after those first two drops off pretty sharply. There are a few races with token Republicans, but none of them stand any real chance at winning. In the race for Cook County assessor, for example, Democrat Fritz Kaegi raised almost $2 million, and spent nearly all of that sum to eke out a narrow primary victory over incumbent Joe Berrios. His Republican opponent in the general election has no campaign finance information available, but has a  Facebook page with 75 likes. For perspective, more than 5 million people live in Cook County.

And Kaegi’s race is one of the most competitive in Cook County. In most local elections in Chicago, there’s only one person on the ballot. Sheriff Tom Dart, for example, faces no opposition, and the same is true for County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, County Clerk Karen Yarbrough, and every single circuit and subcircuit judge up for election in in Hyde Park.

Given all this, voting in Chicago may seem like a waste of time—after all, we already know who’s going to win the majority of contests. While both UC Democrats and College Republicans have been knocking doors for Pritzker and Rauner, respectively, they’ve been traveling out into the suburbs as well, hoping to impact elections more competitive than just the governor’s race. So if you’re not particularly drawn to Rauner or Pritzker (and most people aren’t), you might ask: What’s the point of voting?

The fact is that if you’re only interested in the sorts of high-profile competitive elections that get coverage on FiveThirtyEight, you will be disappointed; there are not many of those happening in Chicago. One exception, however, makes casting a ballot in Chicago worthwhile. Retention votes for 59 Circuit Court judges grant voters the opportunity to remove some of the worst judges on the bench.

Retention voting is certainly less well known than candidate vs. candidate elections, but the bulk of the Chicago ballot is not comprised of these traditional contests.  Rather, voters are able to weigh in on the 59 Circuit Court judges up for retention. If more than 60 percent of the votes are “yes,” the judge gets a new six-year term, whereas anything less than that percentage will cost the judge their spot on the bench.  Most voters tend either to vote to retain all of the judges or just skip this section entirely. Unsurprisingly, the results are as routine as you’d expect: The last time a judge lost a retention election was in 1990.

This year, however, a few retention elections are receiving increased scrutiny. Several community organizations, including Black Lives Matter Chicago and the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, have come together to form the Coalition to Dump Matthew Coghlan, targeting a judge considered by many to be one of the worst judges on the bench. Coghlan is currently a defendant in a civil rights suit alleging that he bribed witnesses to frame two innocent men for murder, sending them to prison for 23 years. The Chicago Council of Lawyers, the city’s public interest bar association, found Coghlan not qualified for retention, noting that some lawyers found Coghlan “condescending and otherwise disrespectful toward non-white lawyers and defendants in his courtroom.” The Cook County Democratic Party, which typically endorses the retention of all judges, took the rare step this year of refusing to endorse Coghlan. While the result  of the suit is uncertain, voters now have the opportunity to boot Coghlan from the bench.

Another judge who should be ousted this year is Maura Slattery Boyle, who has seen her decisions overturned by the appellate court at a rate far higher than any other judge in the Criminal Division. Thirty-four of Slattery Boyle’s decisions have been overturned in the past six years, while in the same time period, only 38 of her five colleagues’ decisions have been overturned. In People v. Serrano, for example, she “refused to admit probative, admissible evidence that, when evaluated under the proper standard, is damning.” This pattern of severe evidentiary errors is common throughout several other cases over which Slattery Boyle presided. An Injustice Watch review also found that Slattery Boyle sentences defendants more harshly than other judges, often favoring prison time over probation for minor offenses. Injustice Watch has published a judicial voter guide with detailed information about all judges up for retention, but Coghlan and Slattery Boyle represent two of the most obvious cases in which a ballot cast in Chicago can help to boot some truly bad judges from the bench.

In most of Chicago’s local elections, the options are either bad or nonexistent, and voting can feel pointless as a result. In a few retention elections, however, voters have a meaningful opportunity to shape the future of the county judiciary. These judges have a significant and often devastating impact on people’s lives, and while kicking them off the bench won’t fix the criminal justice system, these elections allow voters to finally hold bad judges accountable.

An early voting location will be open in Reynolds Club from Wednesday, October 31, to Friday, November 2, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. No ID is required to vote, and voters registered anywhere in the city may vote at any early voting location.

Sam Joyce is a third-year in the College.