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Cook County Democrats’ move against Judge Michael Toomin looks like pure retaliation

There is no smoking gun to prove that the party’s slatemakers voted against Toomin’s retention for any reasons other than the most high-minded. But since when has the party, which has backed hack after hack over the years, been especially high-minded?

Cook County Judge Michael Toomin
Sun-Times file photo

Vote to keep Judge Michael Toomin on the bench in Cook County.

Don’t let the Democratic Party, which has happily endorsed a parade of slugs for judicial retention for decades, now succeed in dumping one of the county’s more independent and capable judges.

Don’t let the party bosses win.

Smacks of retaliation

On Monday, the Cook County Democratic Party voted not to endorse Toomin for retention on Nov. 3. The party leaders complained that Toomin, who heads the court system’s Juvenile Justice Division, is just too old school when it comes to locking up juvenile offenders.

But to anybody who follows Cook County politics, with all its vindictiveness and corruption, the party’s decision to dump Toomin looks like nothing more than retaliation. The judge crossed the party bosses — the old guard and the new guard — once too often.

Toomin infuriated the old guard back in 2012 when he appointed a special prosecutor, former U.S. Attorney Dan K. Webb, to investigate a possible police cover-up of an assault by a nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley. The assault led to the death of a 21-year-old man, David Koschman. Webb’s investigation resulted in a charge of manslaughter against the nephew, Richard J. “R.J.” Vanecko, who pleaded guilty, as well as a report that excoriated the cops who mishandled the case.

The Daley clan and their allies could not have been pleased.

Toomin infuriated the new guard a year ago when he appointed a special prosecutor — again Webb — to investigate any irregularities in how the Cook County state’s attorney’s office handled the case of Jussie Smollett, the TV actor who falsely claimed to have been the victim of a hate attack. Webb concluded that the state’s attorney’s office had botched the case, and he filed new charges against Smollett for making false police reports.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, chair of the county Democratic Party and a mentor to State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, could not have been pleased.

Given the party’s eagerness to give Toomin the boot, supposedly because he’s a bad judge, there’s a real irony in why Chief Judge Tim Evans assigned Toomin to those two “heater” cases — Vanecko and Smollett — in the first place.

Evans, who sure didn’t want any of this blowing back on him, sought a judge who was widely respected for his legal skills, integrity and independence.

In Toomin, a former Republican, he found just that.

The knock on Toomin

Eamon Kelly, chair of the county Democratic party’s judicial retention committee, argued Monday that Toomin was “unqualified” for retention because he lacks the temperament to continue heading the Juvenile Justice Division. The knock on Toomin is that he has a propensity for punishment and isn’t reform-minded.

Toomin drew Preckwinkle’s particular disapproval in 2018 when he declined to follow a county ordinance that barred youths 12 and younger from being held in detention — juvie jail. Two 12-year-old boys with gun charges on their records who were accused of armed robbery had been released on electronic monitoring, but they repeatedly damaged their electronic monitors and ran away. So Toomin ordered that they be held in detention.

We have been following Preckwinkle’s career since she first was elected to the Chicago City Council in 1991. We have no doubts as to her passion for criminal justice reform. She has been steadfast in her insistence on creating alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenders and minors, and we have supported her in that.

But we’re at a loss as to what else Toomin was supposed to do about a couple kids accused of extremely dangerous crimes who had ditched electronic monitoring.

A rare rejection

We also find it hard to imagine that a general philosophical disagreement about juvenile justice reform would have led the Democratic Party to call for Toomin’s forced retirement had he not offended so many party leaders in the Vanecko and Smollett cases.

There is no smoking gun to prove that the party’s slatemakers voted against Toomin’s retention for any reasons other than the most high-minded. But since when has the party, which has backed hack after hack over the years, been especially high-minded? Their rejection of any sitting judge is not unprecedented, but rare.

The party leaders also voted Monday not to endorse the retention of a judge accused of sexual harassment, Mauricio Araujo. But they were quick to recommend the retention of 60 other judges, many of lesser stature than Toomin.

It’s not as if political courage hasn’t gotten judges in trouble before.

In DuPage County in 1995, to cite one local example, Judge Ronald Mehling handed down a directed verdict of not guilty in a high-profile murder trial after a police lieutenant admitted that a key conversation submitted as evidence could not have happened because he was on vacation in Florida. This infuriated the DuPage political establishment, and two years later Mehling was demoted as presiding judge of the court system’s Felony Division.

Vote for Judge Michael Toomin’s retention on Nov. 3.

You never know when Chief Judge Evans will again need a judge of undisputed independence to handle another mess involving powerful local elected officials.

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