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Editorial: Cook County needs merit selection of judges

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Three recent cases that have shaken public confidence in the judiciary show why we need a renewed push for merit selection of judges in Cook County:

  • In April, Circuit Judge Dennis J. Porter found Chicago Police Officer Dante Servin not guilty of involuntary manslaughter. While off-duty in 2012 near Douglas Park, Servin killed Rekia Boyd, 22, when he fired five shots over his shoulder while sitting in his car. Boyd and her three friends had their backs turned to Servin. Porter ruled Servin had not acted recklessly and so couldn’t be convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
  • Last week, Circuit Judge Diane Cannon found Chicago Police Cmdr. Glenn Evans not guilty of aggravated battery and official misconduct for shoving his gun down a suspect’s throat. Cannon ruled the suspect’s DNA on the gun — evidence similar in weight to that used to convict many defendants — was “of fleeting relevance or significance.”
  • In a pending matter, Circuit Judge Nicholas Ford is refusing to take himself off the Jackie Wilson case, even though Ford could be called as a witness and has links to several key actors in the police torture scandal involving former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge. Wilson alleges he is one of the victims in that scandal, an allegation for which the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission found credible evidence.


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In Illinois, judges are elected, but anyone who has been inside a Cook County voting booth knows those are elections in name only. The long list of unfamiliar candidate names is overwhelming to even the most conscientious and informed voters, who have little chance of picking the better-qualified candidates or knowing which judges to favor when they run for retention.

Some people don’t bother to vote for judges, and others vote based on gender or ethnically identifiable names or by political party affiliation. In every election, the democratic ideal of informed choice is among the losers.

Rather than use Illinois’ fully partisan system, most states employ some form of merit selection, in which a nonpartisan commission of lawyers and others evaluates and screens applicants, who then are appointed by elected officials. Unlike the electoral process, in which successful candidates tend to be those favored by politicians who do the slating, merit systems weed out the least qualified applicants. Merit systems also eliminate the need for judicial candidates to ask donors — often lawyers who later may appear before the judges — for money and to make campaign promises that can later undermine the appearance of impartiality.

The Wilson case is a reminder of how poorly Cook County judges performed when African-American men complained they were being tortured by police in the 1970s and 1980s. For decades, judges simply ignored the complaints, accepting police denials at every turn.

Over the years, various bar associations in Illinois have called for a system of merit selection, one that assures fair representation of minorities and women. But the political bosses are too happy with the current system and refuse to go along.

Changing the rules would require a constitutional amendment, which wouldn’t be popular Downstate, where voters know the judicial candidates on their less-crowded ballots and like to have the opportunity to vote for them. But it’s possible to devise a system in which Downstate voters could keep electing judges while Cook County switched to a merit selection system.

With a federal investigation of Chicago police procedures under way and an upcoming election, talk of criminal justice reform in Chicago and Cook County is in the air. Fixing the way we put judges on the bench should be part of that reform.
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