Cook County judge removed by voters in 2020 over video wants a return to the bench
Voters dumped Jackie Portman-Brown after video showed her locking up her 6-year-old grandniece to teach her a lesson. “Would I do this again?” Portman-Brown says. “Probably not. But her behavior has been improved since this incident.”
For the first time in Illinois, a judge who was voted out of office is running to get back on the bench.
In 2020, Jackie Portman-Brown became only the second sitting judge in 30 years to lose a retention election in Cook County.
Her dozen years on the bench ended after she was reassigned to administrative duties following an incident involving her 6-year-old grandniece in February 2020. Security camera footage showed her leaving the young girl for about 10 minutes in an empty, locked cell behind her courtroom at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse.
Months later, despite having the support of the Cook County Democratic Party, the county’s voters booted her from office.
Now, Portman-Brown is running in the June 28 Democratic primary for a vacancy on the bench from the fifth judicial subcircuit on the South Side.
Albert Klumpp, a researcher on judicial elections, says Portman-Brown is the first judge in Illinois to lose a retention election and then run again for a judicial seat.
In an interview, Portman-Brown says a “private family moment” was taken out of context and sensationalized.
Her grandniece had been having behavior problems in school, according to Portman-Brown, who says the girl’s father, her nephew, had had a similar “scared-straight” experience as a child. She says the girl’s mother came to ask her for the favor after her court call had ended, wanting her daughter “to know what happens to people who break the rules,” saying, “If she keeps fighting in school and stealing people’s stuff, this is what will happen to her.”
“Would I do this again?” Portman-Brown says. “Probably not. But her behavior has been improved since this incident.”
Portman-Brown previously had drawn criticism for her informal, brash style in the courtroom and her handling of an intensive-probation program called the HOPE Court that the state shut down in 2018. Independent reviews found the program rife with problems, some stemming from Portman-Brown’s leadership.
She says the evaluations didn’t present a full picture of a program that most participants completed successfully.
But it largely was the incident with her grandniece that haunted Portman-Brown ahead of the 2020 judicial retention election. The Illinois State Bar Association and six other lawyers’ groups found her not qualified to continue as a judge that year. Two others — the Chicago Bar Association and Chicago Council of Lawyers — still recommended that voters keep her in office.
Portman-Brown narrowly missed the 60% threshold needed to win another six-year countywide term, getting 59.32% “yes” votes.
She blames the controversy for losing the judicial seat.
Portman-Brown says she decided to run again, even after failing last year to win an appointment as an associate judge, after analyzing the election results and seeing that voters in her home subcircuit — in which she got “yes” votes for retention from more than 68% of those who voted in the race. The subcircuit covers a wide swath of the South Side — from Bridgeport to South Shore, West Englewood to Lake Michigan — and includes nearly 240,000 people.
This time, eight of the 13 bar associations that evaluated her found her not qualified or not recommended, including the Chicago Bar Association, which reversed its favorable rating from two years ago.
She faces three others in seeking the judge’s seat:
- Timothy Wright III, a lawyer who once worked for former Mayors Harold Washington and Eugene Sawyer, represented Roland Burris amid the controversy that followed his appointment by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich to fill the Senate vacancy left by Barack Obama’s election as president and has been the biggest fund-raiser in the race.
- Judie Lyn Smith, an assistant Cook County public defender assigned to the courthouse in Markham.
- And Tiffany Brooks, a lawyer with the Cook County circuit court clerk’s office who has been found not qualified or not recommended by five of the nine bar associations that evaluated her qualifications.