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posted: 3/12/2012 12:01 AM

How we should pick who sits in judgment

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Here we are, once again, electing judges. Lists of them. Name after name after name. Too many of us do it blindly. Or with a hope, a prayer and, at best, several bar association ratings with us in the voting booth.

It really should not be this way.

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Some of the flaws of trying to elect judges have been again laid bare this spring. As Daily Herald Legal Affairs Writer Barbara Vitello recently reported, the fact that many counties are either overwhelmingly Democratic or overwhelmingly Republican, regularly pushes candidates to run with party labels that might not fit. In essence, if a good judge who wants to win a race in which all Cook County voters cast ballots, then if that judge happens to be a Republican, he or she has to lie and run as a Democrat. That's right. Judicial candidates likely are fibbing about their politics.

This year, Kay Hanlon, who once ran as a Republican and served as a Northfield Township Republican party official is running as a Democrat. Hanlon declined to say why she switched parties. It's pretty clear she needed to if she wanted to have a shot at winning an appellate judgeship in Cook County. Not a single candidate running for any of the six appellate seats is running as a Republican. In DuPage County, no Democrat has won election as a judge since at least 1960, Vitello reported.

Fewer people vote in primaries, but primary voters will decide who stands in judgment over all of us.

And then there's the influence of money. It's too strong in all elections, but there's something especially disturbing when you consider its influence in judicial races. Most of those who contribute are, naturally, lawyers who will go before the winners and seek favorable rulings.

The candidates for Illinois Supreme Court running from the First District which encompasses Cook County have raised $1.6 million so far. Justice Mary Jane Theis, who was appointed to fill a vacancy on the court two years ago, has raised the bulk of that with $1.07 million. Fellow Democrat and 1st District Appellate Justice Joy Virginia Cunningham has raised about $540,000, while Justice Aurelia Marie Pucinski has raised $30,000. A fourth candidate, Winnetka lawyer Thomas W. Flannigan isn't accepting contributions and doesn't believe judicial candidates should. "Money comes with strings attached, and we're beholden only to justice," he said.

There are other options. Twenty states use nonpartisan elections to choose judges, according to the American Bar Association. Arlington Heights lawyer Ernie Blomquist supports a form of merit selection called the Missouri Plan. A governor fills vacancies from a list approved by a nonpartisan committee. A year later, that judge must be retained by voters in a general, not primary, election. Merit selection is a concept we and many lawyers and judges long have supported. We still favor it, but it's never gained much traction.

Those ideas and others deserve study. Relying on primary voters, and hoping they've looked past party labels to some bar ratings, just tips the scales too much toward the arbitrary.

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