Eight years ago, when Kay Hanlon ran as a Republican for Cook County circuit court judge in the heavily Republican 12th Subcircuit, she criticized an opponent in the primary election as a Democrat in GOP clothing.
Now Hanlon is running for appellate judge from the strongly Democratic First District. This time, she's on the ballot as a Democrat.
Hanlon declined to say why she switched parties, and she's not the only judicial candidate to make a switch. John Noverini, former chairman of the Dundee Township Republican Central Committee and member of the Kane County Board, resigned from the Republican Party in 2007 and ran the following year as a Democrat in a Kane County judicial subcircuit. He won.
The examples illuminate how partisan politics affect judicial elections -- and galvanize those who argue for nonpartisan judicial elections.
In Cook County, a handful of suburban subcircuits provide the few routes for Republicans to win a seat on the circuit court bench. Judges elected from the other subcircuits, as well as appellate and Supreme Court judges who are elected by countywide vote, are overwhelmingly Democrats.
In other suburban counties the tables are turned. No candidate running as a Democrat has been elected judge in DuPage County since at least 1960, said Dan Curry, spokesman for the DuPage County Election Commission.
In Kane County, Noverini's election marked the first time a Democrat was elected to the bench.
"Judges are elected from geographical areas and many geographical areas are highly slanted to one party or another," said Judge Mathias William Delort, who is among Hanlon's appellate court opponents and has been endorsed by Cook County Democrats.
Consequently, with judicial candidates from other parties recognizing their slim chances of winning, "many of them run across party lines," says Arlington Heights attorney Ernest Blomquist, past president of the Northwest Suburban Bar Association and a member of Hanlon's election committee.
Hanlon, formerly a Republican deputy committeewoman and Northfield Township trustee, says she differs from the 2004 opponent she criticized.
"My point in 2004 was that my opponent was pretending to be a lifelong Republican. I'm not pretending to be a lifelong Democrat. I'm acknowledging that I ran as a Republican," said Hanlon, who oversees felony cases in Rolling Meadows' Third Municipal District.
Delort says he knows of lawyers and judges who have switched parties to run, and he defends their ability to do so.
"It is difficult from a constitutional standpoint for the state of Illinois to lock people forever into one party," he says.
Hanlon, who won her 2010 nonpartisan retention race with 77.7 percent of the vote, is among six candidates running for the appellate court seat left vacant by the death of Appellate Justice Robert Cahill. Along with Delort, her opponents include Democrats Pamela E. Hill-Veal, Mary Brigid Hayes, James Michael McGing and Laura Marie Sullivan.
There are no Republican candidates. There are also no Republicans running in the other five Cook County appellate races, which means the March 20 Democratic primary will decide the winners.
That troubles retired judge Gino L. DiVito, who served on the Illinois appellate and Cook County circuit courts.
"We know through experience that the primary ... is the de facto election of judges almost everywhere throughout Illinois," DiVito wrote in a December 2010 article for the Illinois Bar Journal.
That translates to the small percentage of people who vote in the primary selecting judges.
"That reality must change," said DiVito, who advocates an Illinois constitutional amendment requiring nonpartisan judicial elections. Twenty states use nonpartisan elections to choose trial court judges, according to the American Bar Association.
He and others point out that party affiliation has no bearing on a judicial candidate's competence or performance.
"It's a hoax on the public" to suggest it does, Blomquist said. Illinois Supreme Court rules prohibit sitting judges from engaging in such partisan activities as speaking on behalf of or holding office in a political organization.
Yet, at election time, political affiliation can be crucial, and sometimes figures into campaigns.
During her 2004 campaign, Hanlon decried her opponent's party switch.
"Say what you mean, mean what you say," she said at the time. "Integrity is number one for judges."
"I stand by my statement," Hanlon said recently. "The bottom line is I'm not pretending to be something I'm not."
Judges and lawyers may agree the system is flawed, but differ on ways to improve it.
Nonpartisan elections are one alternative, says Malcolm Rich, executive director of the Chicago Council of Lawyers. But that must go hand-in-hand with voters accessing more information on candidates, he says.
"If we're going to elect judges there needs to be a concerted push to provide more information to voters from nonpartisan sources. By nonpartisan sources I mean evaluations that are based on judicial performance," Rich says.
Those sources include the Illinois State Bar Association, the Chicago Bar Association, the Chicago Council of Lawyers and VoteForJudges.org, which compiles rankings from a number of bar associations, he said.
In Hanlon's race, the Illinois State Bar Association and the Chicago Bar Association found Delort highly qualified. The CBA rated Hanlon and McGing as also highly qualified. The ISBA found Hanlon, Hayes and McGing qualified and Hill-Veal and Sullivan not qualified. The CBA found Hayes and Sullivan qualified and Hill-Veal not recommended.
Rich suggests that ballots be accompanied by biographic information and bar association evaluations that could be delivered to voters as an electronic voter guide.
"You're talking about electing individuals to some of the most powerful positions in our society, often in a blind vote," Rich says.
In addition to nonpartisan judicial elections, DiVito advocates merit selection.
So does Blomquist, who served on an advisory committee on the matter established by former Gov. James Thompson. He champions the Missouri Plan, in which the governor fills judicial vacancies from a list of candidates submitted by a nonpartisan committee. After a year, the new judge stands for a retention vote in the next general election.
"I will not see merit selection in my lifetime," says DiVito. "The legislators, the General Assembly have no interest in doing that. They're members of political parties and they benefit from having a voice in who's slated and selected."
Despite their criticisms, Delort and Blomquist point out that the current system has resulted in the selection of many excellent judges.
"The system works in spite of itself," Blomquist said.
Hanlon, who favors elections because they give voters a voice, says her background -- not a political party -- make her a strong candidate.
"I'm running for the appellate court because I'm a qualified judge," she says. "I'm the best candidate for the position."