Something’s hinky when a candidate for judge has to fork over $40,000

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When Cook County Democratic Party judicial candidates are slated, they are asked to contribute $40,000 to the party. | File photo

If I told you that a political candidate gave an organization $40,000 after they received an endorsement from that same organization, would you think that this was anything other than a quid pro quo? It’s hard to imagine any other interpretation.

OPINION

Although the asking price has increased, this practice has been going on for a long time within the Cook County Democratic Party and it will continue in the next few weeks as the party goes through its slating process. Each election season, candidates running for judge go before the party to ask for endorsements. Once judicial candidates are slated, they are then asked to contribute $40,000 to the party. This practice needs to stop. Now. This practice must cease for the following reasons:

It leads to a perception of corruption. If you walk around the various courthouses in Cook County and talk about different judges, the common theme is that judges “bought” that judgeship. The $40,000 is frequently mentioned. Judges aren’t seen as honorable or above the fray, but rather political insiders who paid the party to get the position. Some of this perception is because of the way judges are selected (which is out of our control), but much of the perception is the practice the party engages in. Our judicial system is built on trust. If the public, and the participants in the system, believe that judges bought their way onto the bench, that trust erodes.

It distracts from the principal issues in slating judicial candidates. As long as judges are elected in Illinois and as long as the party is going to slate judicial candidates, the party should be focused on promoting qualified, ethical and fair candidates that represent our diverse county. Period. This is a service we should be providing to the county, and we should take pride in informing the voters on who we think are the most qualified candidates for judge. As soon as $40,000 exchanges hands between the candidate and the party endorsing that candidate, all the attention focuses on that transaction and nothing else.

It harms the slated candidate. Even if the party slates a qualified candidate, this practice causes judicial candidates to be perceived as having bought the slating. Furthermore, many of the candidates who the party endorses are not wealthy. Many are career public servants living on a governmental income. That $40,000 is a substantial amount of money requiring some to take out a loan for something that doesn’t even guarantee victory. Meanwhile, judicial candidates who cannot afford or refuse to participate in slating save $40,000 and gear up for a run against the slated candidate. This, in certain circumstances, puts the slated candidate at a tactical disadvantage.

It does not represent the costs claimed. It has been suggested that this $40,000 contribution is for costs, particularly printing and postage for mailers. The $40,000 from each slated judicial candidate is an inflated portion of what the party needs to pay for mailers (not to mention an unfair burden on those candidates). Rather, it is obviously a campaign contribution to the party.

The stakes are too high — justice is too important to use judicial candidates as contributors to the party. We must look to other sources of fundraising other than the people who will be entrusted with administering our system of justice.

Aaron Goldstein is an attorney and the 33rd Ward Democratic committeeman. He is a supervisor at the Cook County Public Defender’s Office.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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