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updated: 1/31/2010 1:45 PM

Too soon to tell if judicial elections are living up to their promise?

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Tuesday's election will mark the second time that Lake County voters have cast ballots for circuit judge candidates running in subcircuit races.

But the verdict is still out on whether subcircuits are effective.

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The six subcircuits in the county were drawn by proponents who said they would bring diversity to the bench and lower the cost of getting elected. Instead of running in countywide races, judges now run in one of six geographical areas.

The current sitting judges were grandfathered in and do not have to live in the subcircuit they are assigned to. But as they retire all future judges will have to be residents of the subcircuit they run in. The subcircuits have no effect on assignments; all judges hear cases from all over the county.

Those critical of subcircuit elections say the process injects more partisanship into an elected office grounded in impartiality and fairness. In general, the argument is that because candidates have to come from a smaller geographic area, it reduces the pool and makes it possible for political parties to promote loyal favorites rather than the most qualified individuals.

In 2005, Democrats in the state Legislature passed legislation creating the subcircuits in all the counties around Cook except DuPage.

Their playbook was written by Republican lawmakers from suburban Cook County, who created similar districts there in 1991.

In both cases, the party that pushed for the subcircuits also was the party in the minority as far as judgeships in the effected area.

The concept of judicial subcircuits is such a highly charged political issue that neither the Illinois State Bar Association nor the Lake County Association takes an official position on them because of their partisan nature.

If the "diversity" touted by those who pressed for subcircuits in Lake County meant simply electing more Democrats to the bench, then their creation is bearing fruit.

In one of two races in 2008, Democrat Jay Ukena defeated sitting Circuit Judge George Bridges, a Republican. Ukena drew 60 percent of the vote to Bridges' 40 percent in the 1st Subcircuit, which covers Waukegan and parts of Benton and Zion townships.

In the 2nd Subcircuit, made up of parts of Warren, Libertyville and Shields townships, Republican Valerie Ceckowski narrowly held off a challenge for her spot on the bench by Democrat David Weinstein. Ceckowski won by only 434 votes, or a little more than a percentage point.

But apply a more traditional definition of "diversity" in office holders - including more women and minorities in the mix - and the picture muddies a bit.

In 2008 and again this year, all of the challenger candidates in subcircuit races are white males, while the sitting judges are two women, a black man and a Hispanic man.

And although Democrats are traditionally thought of as the party of inclusion, it is the Republicans who have the biggest tent in Lake County.

In 2008, there were Ceckowski and Bridges, who was the first black judge in the county. Now, Diane Winter is being challenged in the 5th Subcircuit, and Jorge Ortiz, the county's first Hispanic judge, will be challenged in the 6th in the fall. All are Republicans.

Circuit judges normally get to their position by appointment by the state Supreme Court from the position of associate judge.

A circuit judge runs in election where he or she can be opposed just once, then runs for retention every six years and must get at least 60 percent of the vote to remain in office.

In the last 40 years in Lake County, only four people - Ukena, Fred Foreman, Jack Hoogasian and Lawrence Inglis - have been elected circuit judge without first serving as an associate judge.

Jane Waller was a trailblazer for women on the bench in Lake County as she was the first woman to be appointed an associate judge, elected a circuit judge, named a presiding judge of a court division and selected chief circuit judge by her peers.

Waller said she believes in the system in which she had her success.

"People who are selected for appointment as associate judge go through a very rigorous screening process," Waller said. "The judges of the circuit court who make the appointments, and the bar association committee that makes the recommendations, take very seriously the challenge of finding the best qualified candidates and reflecting the diversity of the community.

But Dwayne Douglas, a Democratic candidate for circuit judge in the 4th Subscircuit, says it is that process that has led to the domination of the county's bench by Republicans over the past several decades.

And he says the subcircuit election process can still be counted on to promote diversity as the field of candidates grows over the years.

In terms of cost containment, another uncertain verdict has been issued so far in subcircuit races.

According to filings with the state board of elections, Ukena spent $39,549 to win his seat on the bench in 2008, while Bridges spent $30,885.

But the last time circuit judge candidates ran in a contested election countywide, the Republican primary in 2006, Ceckowski spent $24,051, holding off a challenge from Associate Judge Wallace Dunn, who spent $28,802.

Still, Douglas said he believes the subcircuit system is the only way he could reach for the office.

"There are more than 700,000 people in Lake County," he said. "I simply could not afford to run across the entire county."

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