The Cook County Democratic Party took the rare step Friday of refusing to endorse a sitting Cook County judge, deciding not to recommend Circuit Judge Matthew Coghlan for reelection in November.
The decision by Cook County Democrats not to support Coghlan — a former assistant state’s attorney who is a defendant in a federal civil rights lawsuit that accuses him, as a prosecutor, of helping frame two innocent men for murder 25 years ago — represents a seismic shift in the party’s tradition of supporting all candidates for retention.
The party normally urges voters to reelect all judges, listing their names on sample ballots and recommending them in automated calls to voters.
That support matters, especially in a county where the Democratic Party holds such sway over countywide races. No judge has been voted out of office in Cook County in more than three decades.
The vote by party leaders Friday adds to the pressure the embattled judge already was facing as a result of community groups working together to oppose his bid to remain on the bench.
Every six years, all circuit judges face a ballot test, subject to losing their seats if they don’t get 60 percent “yes” votes from voters in their race.
Voting not to endorse Coghlan, who was first elected in 2000, “was a difficult but necessary decision to maintain the high integrity of the Party’s values and mission,” said Jacob Kaplan, the Cook County Democratic Party’s executive director. The decision came after a party committee reviewed Coghlan’s record, according to Kaplan, who said all of the 59 other judges on the retention ballot got the party’s backing.
Coghlan is facing opposition from community groups who formed the Coalition to Dump Matthew Coghlan and have been raising money to campaign against him.
The judge is also in the unusual position of being a defendant in a civil rights case. The suit contends that, as a prosecutor, Coghlan worked with disgraced former Chicago police detective Reynaldo Guevara to frame Armando Serrano and Jose Montanez for murder. The two men spent 23 years in prison before they were exonerated in 2016.
In a court filing, Coghlan, who didn’t respond to a request for comment Friday, has denied any wrongdoing.
In June, an Injustice Watch review published by the Chicago Sun-Times found that Coghlan has a history of harsh sentences, including handing one-year sentences to several African-American defendants for marijuana possession. He also has drawn criticism for lenient sentences in cases in which police officers were the defendants.
The coalition of groups opposing Coghlan focused on him, hoping to raise awareness about judicial retention races, which voters often ignore. On Thursday, it posted a video online featuring Serrano and Montanez — the wrongly convicted men — spoke of the hardships of being imprisoned for years and pointed to Coghlan’s role in convicting them.
“We not only voted to end a decades-old practice of universally supporting every judge for retention, but we also took steps to get rid of a racist judge,” Paul Rosenfeld, Democratic Party commiteeman for the 47th Ward, said after Friday’s party vote. “We put all judges on notice that they have to do their job fairly and with integrity, or watch out.”
Mari Cohen is a reporter for Injustice Watch, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit journalism organization that conducts in-depth research to expose institutional failures that obstruct justice and equality.
Contributing: Injustice Watch reporters Alecia Richards and Elena Sucharetza