Kane County judicial candidates differ on backgrounds, ratings from peers
Five people seeking the Republican and Democratic nominations for an open circuit judge seat have contrasting legal backgrounds and differ in their ratings from local and statewide bar associations.
Judge David Akemann plans to step down from his at-large 16th Circuit seat in December, prompting three people to seek the GOP nod and two to compete for the Democratic nomination.
Circuit judges are elected and in addition to presiding over their respective courtrooms, they help set policies for the circuit and make appointments of associate judges. Kane has 14 circuit judges and 17 associate judges.
At a recent forum organized by the Elgin League of Women Voters, candidates espoused their backgrounds and discussed the weight of recommendations from the Kane County Bar Association and the Illinois State Bar Association.
The Kane County Bar Association issued its ratings from a confidential, 21-attorney panel. The statewide rankings are compiled from lawyers who return surveys. Both systems look at a categories such as a candidate's integrity, legal ability, temperament and experience level.
The Kane bar had Flood and Kliment listed as "highly recommended" with scores of 75 percent or more; Cowart and Hartwell as "recommended" with scores of 60 percent of more; and Noland as "not presently recommended" with a score less than 60 percent.
In the state ratings: Cowart, Flood and Kliment were "recommended" and Hartwell and Noland were "not recommended."
Flood was appointed as an associate judge in 2013. She said if the election was akin to a job interview, then it makes sense for voters to hire the candidate with the most experience. She's presided over all types of cases and worked in both the criminal and civil divisions during her 17 years at the Kane County state's attorney's office.
"My broad perspective and judicial experience makes me the best candidate for this job," she said.
Kliment was appointed in 2010 and before that served 16 years as Kane County Public Defender, overseeing the office, defending clients and presenting budgets to the county board. Kliment stressed his trial experience -- he defended capital punishment cases when Illinois still had the death penalty -- along with high recommendations from peers.
"It's the experience that matters," he said. "It's not how we think the political makeup of the judiciary should be. Politics has nothing to do with it. We are independent. We are not politicians, we are judges."
Hartwell pointed to his calm demeanor and suggested peers who responded to the state bar survey didn't see him early in his legal career before he took over the circuit clerk's office and supervising more than 110 employees and managing 26,000 cases that go to court each month.
"I'm well equipped to be a judge," Hartwell said. "I'm fair. I have great legal experience."
No Democrat has ever been elected to a countywide judge seat.
Cowart, an assistant state's attorney, emphasized she was the only Democratic candidate recommended by both bar associations. She also noted she has handled cases, such as juvenile court where proceedings are closed to the public, for the past decade so some of her peers have not seen her at trial, thus affecting her bar rating.
Cowart cited her public service, connections to the community and education in dispute resolution.
"All of our elected officials, even judges, should reflect the people we serve. Of the 14 circuit judges, only one is female and I believe that needs to change," she said. "Diverse life experience brings a different perspective when you're on the bench."
Noland is former state senator from Elgin who served eight years as chairman of the senate's judiciary committee. Noland suggested some local Republican attorneys may have given him bad ratings to discredit him.
Noland also noted that only two of Kane's judges are Democrats, but that is not reflective of the county. "Kane County is not 94 percent Republican," Noland said. "(The election) is a chance for us to finally have a truer reflection of our community in the judiciary."
Early voting runs through March 19 at certain locations. For a list, visit kanecountyelections.org.