In a town where the political hacks disdain “beefers” who “talk out of school,” it’s rare to hear the thoughts of a sitting Cook County judge anywhere outside the courtroom.
Cook County Circuit Court Judge Patrick Murphy, who was the county’s longtime public guardian, broke with tradition this month in two email blasts to Chief Judge Timothy Evans and the rest of his colleagues.
Murphy uses the lengthy missives, which I obtained, to propose what could be radical changes to the sprawling, politically tainted court system.
A main suggestion involves changing the way almost half of the judges are chosen. Murphy also calls for other potentially significant changes, including term limits for the chief judge and presiding judges, and greater input from the more than 400 judges across the county in the court’s $223 million annual budget and other matters.
“I submit that our present system quells creativity, quashes dissent and quiets alternative approaches,” Murphy wrote in the latest of his emails on Tuesday. “Individual judges are frequently afraid to speak out about issues.”
Murphy was careful to note he sees Evans as a “decent, caring and intelligent leader” who inherited the system he has overseen since 2001.
But Murphy alleged that “the law was not followed” in the recent appointments of 13 associate judges. An Illinois Supreme Court rule states that the chief judge and a group of judges “selected by their fellow circuit judges” should make up the nominating committee for associate judge openings.
“In the over-50-year history of the circuit court, the nominating committee has never been selected by other judges,” Murphy wrote. “The chief judge distributes the names of the individuals he chooses to be on the nominating committee. The rest of the judges are given no options and are told to sign off on the chief’s selections.”
That means “a tiny coterie” handpicked by the chief judge controls the selection of nearly 40 percent of the county judges, Murphy says.
The 13 associate judges sworn in on Monday were among 26 nominees put forward to the rest of the judges by the committee Evans formed.
“I am told that over 300 candidates were interviewed,” Murphy wrote. “We were asked to vote on 26. We know nothing about the credentials or expertise of the other 275 or so candidates. By law we should.”
Instead, Murphy argues, a committee elected by the judges should select nominees for associate judge from among all applicants.
Murphy, who is assigned to the Bridgeview courthouse, also says openings on the bench should be posted and judges should have a say in who is transferred to those spots.
“Rumors persist that qualified judges are at times overlooked for ‘plum’ assignments in favor of those who might be politically connected,” Murphy says, without offering specifics.
Murphy claims other unnamed judges have proposed hiring a “professional court administrator” and limiting the chief judge to two terms. Evans is nearing the end of his fifth three-year term.
“The process to select associate judges has been been called the closest thing to judicial merit selection in Illinois,” said Evans spokesman Pat Milhizer. “Some of the best and brightest attorneys have joined the court through this process.”
Milhizer said 75 percent of the circuit judges supported Evans’ picks for the nominating committee and that the process allows the judges to back write-in candidates for associate judge.
Murphy — who was public guardian for 26 years before being elected to the bench 11 years ago — declined to comment.
The Democratic Party elites who control the judicial-appointment process might dismiss Murphy’s beef as the grandstanding of a phony reformer attempting a power grab.
But the more people have a say in choosing judges and running the courts, the more difficult it could be for clout to infect the system.