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Rival challenges Evans for chief judge spot in closed-door race for job with $272 million budget

Despite not having a vote, Cook County residents have a big stake in the outcome. The chief judge has a $272 million budget and an army of 2,400 employees, which doesn’t even include the 400 judges the office oversees. 

Chief Judge of the Cook County Circuit Court Timothy Evans, left, Circuit Judge Lorna Propes, right.
Chief Judge of the Cook County Circuit Court Timothy Evans, left, in 2015; Circuit Judge Lorna Propes, right, who is running against Evans to be chief judge.
Brian Jackson/For the Sun Times); Youtube

Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans, whose 18-year tenure in the job is the longest in county history, is facing the second serious challenge to his leadership in three years — this time from an opponent who is promising to term limit the position.

Circuit Judge Lorna Propes, a veteran trial attorney and longtime member of the Illinois Racing Board before going on the bench in 2010, says if elected she will seek to limit herself and future chief judges to a pair of three-year terms.

“No one individual, no matter how likable or gracious, has a monopoly on the skills needed to lead this court,” Propes states in a campaign video posted on YouTube, arguing that the local court’s problems are the “result of complacency and bureaucratic inertia that sets in when an administration stays too long.”

Term limits could be enacted by a rule change approved by her fellow judges, Propes said.

In his own video making the case to re-elect him to a seventh term, Evans — the likable and gracious one —touts innovations he’s made in the court system through the years and, without directly addressing term limits, observes: “Greatness is excellence sustained over time.”

Evans first won the chief judge job in 2001 to become the first African American to hold the position.

Then in 2016 he beat back a strong bid to unseat him by Tom Allen, a former Chicago alderman turned judge like himself.

In the closing days before the 2016 vote, Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) and other Evans’ community allies threatened a black voter backlash against judges facing retention that year if Evans was ousted.

Allen lost on a vote of 129 to 103 and believed the threats played a role in his defeat.

With Austin currently under federal investigation, she’s presumably not in a position to be much help to Evans this time. And with no retention vote until next year, a similar threat would lack some of the punch it packed in 2016 when the election was just weeks away.

Nevertheless, outside pressures on the judiciary are very much an issue in the current campaign, as Propes stresses the importance of the chief judge working to restore public confidence in judges by defending them against “undeniably false and misleading attacks”—including efforts to oust judges seeking retention.

The election is scheduled Sept. 12. Voting is limited to full circuit judges — who numbered 255 as of last week. The judges will gather in a closed room at the Daley Center to vote by secret ballot.

Despite not having a vote, Cook County residents have a big stake in the outcome. The chief judge has a $272 million budget and an army of 2,400 employees, which doesn’t even include the 400 judges the office oversees.

The chief judge also has the power to fill vacancies on the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners and the Cook County Board of Review.

Then-Ald. Timothy Evans during his 1989 mayoral run. File Photo.
Then-Ald. Timothy Evans during his 1989 mayoral run. File Photo.
Chicago Sun Times archives

Because this is a judges-only election, neither Evans or Propes agreed to be interviewed, instead referring me to videos and letters circulated on their behalf among judges.

Although Propes is appealing for change, this is not exactly a youth movement. Evans is 76. Propes is 74.

Evans, who was former Mayor Harold Washington’s floor leader during the Council Wars period, went on the bench in 1992 after losing a campaign for mayor against Richard M. Daley and then losing his aldermanic seat to Toni Preckwinkle.

“I hope you will agree that over the years, working together with a commitment to fairness and integrity, we have brought reforms to our court which are both innovative and compassionate, and equally importantly, embraced changes which continue to produce justice to those who appear before us,” Evans says in his video.

Chicago Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson, left, arrives at the Cook County Courthouse with his attorney Lorna Propes in 2007.
Chicago Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson, left, arrives at the Cook County Courthouse with his attorney Lorna Propes where a judge cleared Johnson to travel with his team to Super Bowl XLI in 2007. File Photo.
APThe Bears take on the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLI on Sunday, Feb. 4, in Miami. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Propes, who currently sits in the Law Division where personal injury cases are a main order of business, has covered the waterfront in her legal career.

She worked as an assistant Cook County state’s attorney from 1975 to 1980. Since going into private practice, her experience includes defending Dow Chemical in a major class action suit involving breast implants and joining former Judge R. Eugene Pincham in winning a $6 million settlement from the city for the family of a boy who was 8 when unjustly charged with murdering 11-year-old Ryan Harris.

She also has done criminal defense work, most famously for hapless former Bears lineman Tank Johnson and more quietly as a member of Ald. Edward R. Vrdolyak’s legal team during his first conviction in 2010, withdrawing after her appointment to the bench.

Despite all that, horseracing fans in particular may best recall Propes as a member of the state Racing Board, first appointed by Gov. James R. Thompson, then dropped by Gov. George Ryan, and later restored by Gov. Rod Blagojevich. For many years, there was even a stakes race named in her honor at Balmoral Park.

Three judges — Dan Pierce, Marcia Maras and Ray Mitchell — sent a letter to their colleagues extolling Propes.

“She will protect our independence and ensure that fair criticism of the legal system does not cross the line into political intimidation,” they wrote.