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updated: 10/23/2012 4:05 PM

Judge ratings make daunting task easier for voters

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It's a familiar Election Day scenario: Cook County voters make their way through an often-lengthy ballot, at the end of which they confront an equally lengthy list of candidates up for judicial election and retention.

Often lacking much knowledge of those who are running, some people vote "no" for every judicial candidate. Others vote "yes." Many don't vote in judicial races at all.

"Some say it's just too daunting," said Malcolm Rich, executive director of the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, part of a national network of public interest law centers dedicated to social justice and effective government.

Rich agrees the task is formidable, but says it's necessary to ensure a quality judiciary.

"People need to realize that one bad judge can have an impact on tens of thousands of people," he said. Likewise "there are very good judges who are helping thousands of people. Our goal is to keep those judge on the bench and not retain unqualified judges."

To that end, Chicago Appleseed developed VoteForJudges.org. Established in 2004, the website posts nonpartisan judicial recommendations from area bar groups, including the Alliance of Bar Associations for Judicial Screening, an 11-member coalition that includes the Illinois State Bar Association whose 33,000 members make it Illinois' largest.

Using candidate questionnaires, candidate interviews and interviews with other courtroom personnel, Alliance members evaluate candidates for their knowledge of the law, fairness, independence, courtroom management and lack of bias.

Additionally, VoteForJudges.org links to more detailed narratives from the Chicago Bar Association (which evaluates candidates independently of the Alliance), the Chicago Council of Lawyers and the Judicial Performance Commission of Cook County. Comprised of lawyers and lay people, the JPC provides a brief biography of judges running for retention, summarizes judges' strengths and weaknesses and offers recommendations on how they can improve.

Accessing the information takes time, acknowledges Rich, "but is not an onerous burden."

Voters spending 10 to 15 minutes on the website will get a fairly good idea of the candidates, said Rich. To save time, Voters can focus on judges receiving "no" or "not qualified" ratings from at least half of the bar associations, said Rich, adding that the "not recommended" group amounts to no more than a handful of candidates.

As it is, many of the appellate circuit court candidates are running uncontested. The 57 Cook County judges running for retention in the appellate and circuit courts must receive 60 percent of the vote to remain on the bench. Typically, nearly 100 percent of them are retained, said Rich, adding that over the last 35 years, only 14 judges have been voted out.

Regardless of how many judges are retained or ousted, "this is an important process," said Rich, adding that voting "yes" or "no" across the board is the wrong response.

Some judges should not be retained, but, says Rich, "there are many good judges who are diligent jurists who are helping to protect people's live and we want to protect them as well."

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