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To vote for the best judges, listen to the lawyers

A voter fills out her ballot at a Chicago polling station last year. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

The March 15 primary election for Cook County Circuit Court judges presents a minefield for voters looking for qualified candidates.

Of the 23 contested races, 19 include at least one candidate who is rated “not recommended” or “not qualified” by at least one of the 12 local bar associations that rate judicial candidates.

Judges have enormous power over those who appear before them. They can send people to jail, direct children to foster care or divvy up assets in a divorce. Parties in legal cases rely on having judges who excel in their duties.

But many of those running in this year’s election do not meet that standard, in the bar associations’ judgments. Sixteen of the 80 candidates got a thumbs-down from both the Chicago Bar Association and the Chicago Council of Lawyers, which publish the most thorough recommendations. Thirteen more were rejected by one of those two groups. In addition, six judges recommended by both the CBA and CCL got a negative rating from at least one of the remaining 10 bar associations.

Of the 12 bar associations that rate candidates, the CBA and CCL are the only two that include an explanation of their ratings. The CBA gave out seven “not recommended” ratings to candidates who do not have enough experience. Another 16 were rated “not recommended” because they did not present their credentials. Not presenting credentials is widely seen as an admission by candidates that they know they won’t get a good rating.

Thirteen judges were found “not recommended” by all 12 bar associations: Gregory Raymond LaPapa, Bonnie Carol McGrath, Brian J. O’Hara, Monica M. Torres-Linares, Rhonda Crawford, D. Renee Jackson, Jameika Mangum, Carlos Claudio, Jennifer Ballard, Mable Taylor, James DiChristofano, Alex Kaplan and Michael Link. All except LaPapa did not participate in the screening process for either the CBA or the CCL and were automatically rated “not recommended.”

LaPapa presented his credentials only to the CBA, which said he “has been the subject of numerous lawsuits for unpaid bills and several lawsuits for breach of contract. In addition, Mr. LaPapa’s license to practice law was suspended by the Illinois Supreme Court for one year from September 2001-September 2002.”

LaPapa said the lawsuits against him mostly occurred more than 20 years ago.

“I feel that they should be concerned about what has a candidate done,” he said. “I have represented poor people. I have done a lot of free work and a lot of low-fee work. Most of my clients are from African-American community.”

Ten of the races for open Cook County Circuit judgeships are uncontested. The unopposed candidates in those races got generally high marks from the bar associations.

There are also two open seats for the Appellate Court First District, which includes all of Cook County. In both races, the candidates — Eileen O’Neill Burke and Bertina E. Lampkin — are unopposed and got good ratings from the bar associations.