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Judicial politics isn’t child’s play — or is it? Democrats link call to dump judge to juvenile justice, not Jussie Smollett

Party officials deny any connection to State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s election, saying they want Judge Michael Toomin out over his ‘imperial’ temperament and ‘outdated approach’ to juvenile justice. 

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Michael P. Toomin on the bench at 26th & California in 2012.
Cook County Circuit Court Judge Michael P. Toomin on the bench at 26th & California in 2012.
Sun-Times Media

The Cook County Democratic Party voted Monday to oppose retention of the judge who appointed a special prosecutor to investigate State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s handling of the Jussie Smollett case, bringing immediate accusations of retaliation.

Party officials denied any connection to Foxx’s election and said they are seeking to oust Judge Michael Toomin, presiding judge of the county’s Juvenile Justice division, over what they said was his “imperial” temperament and “outdated approach” to juvenile justice.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot was among those who questioned the party’s move, saying she was “deeply concerned” about it.

“The optics of this are terrible,” Lightfoot said. “It looks like retaliation.”

It sure does.

The move to dump Toomin had the support of Cook County Democratic Chairman Toni Preckwinkle, who lost to Lightfoot in the 2019 mayor’s race and served as Foxx’s mentor when the prosecutor was her chief of staff. But Toomin’s potential ouster was also backed by Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), who passed along Lightfoot’s concerns to party officials before the vote.

Toomin accused party leaders of retaliating against him for his decision to name attorney Dan K. Webb to reopen the Smollett investigation.

Toomin called it a “blatant rejection of judicial independence.”

Webb brought a new indictment against Smollett and later issued a report that was highly critical of Foxx and her office, although it cleared the state’s attorney of accusations of improper influence by outside parties.

Judge Michael Toomin attends the induction ceremony for newly elected Cook County circuit judges at the Thompson Center in 2012.
Judge Michael Toomin attends the induction ceremony for newly elected Cook County circuit judges at the Thompson Center in 2012.
Brian Jackson~Sun-Times file

Toomin declined to make Webb’s full report public, but that hasn’t prevented it from providing campaign fuel to Republican candidate Pat O’Brien, a former top prosecutor and county judge who is opposing Foxx’s reelection bid.

Toomin previously had named Webb as special prosecutor to investigate the death of David Koschman, resulting in the prosecution of R.J. Vanecko, former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s nephew.

It is very unusual for the Democratic Party to oppose any judge for retention, although it did so two years ago in the case of Judge Matthew Coghlan over his past involvement as a prosecutor in a wrongful conviction case. After successfully dumping Coghlan from the bench, Preckwinkle said the party would undertake more such efforts in the future.

“This is not about optics,” Preckwinkle said of Toomin on Monday. “It’s about judicial accountability.”

Scott Cisek, then executive director of the Cook County Democratic Party, passes out resumes of judicial candidates to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle; then Party Chairman Joe Berrios and Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) at Plumbers Union Hall in 2011.
Scott Cisek, then executive director of the Cook County Democratic Party, passes out resumes of judicial candidates to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle; then Party Chairman Joe Berrios and Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) at Plumbers Union Hall in 2011.
John J. Kim/Sun-Times

In addition to Toomin, another judge Democrats will oppose for retention is Mauricio Araujo, who is under fire over multiple sexual harassment allegations and for issuing more than 80 search warrants to two Chicago police officers convicted of using them to commit crimes.

Elected circuit judges in Illinois face a retention vote every six years, requiring approval of 60 percent of voters to keep their seats on the bench.

Eamon Kelly, Evanston Township Democratic committeeperson and chair of the party’s Judicial Retention Committee, said he singled out Toomin for closer scrutiny after he was found “not qualified” by the Chicago Council of Lawyers.

Although the Council of Lawyers later reversed itself over the weekend and now supports Toomin’s retention, Kelly said his own confidential interviews with “juvenile justice advocates” caused him to conclude Toomin was “obstructing efforts at reforming” the juvenile court system.

Kelly’s report on Toomin cited the judge’s personal experience in the juvenile justice system, when he stole a car as a teenager and subsequently entered the Marines, to suggest that his views — “as a white male, from a privileged community”— were outdated.

Toomin said he was caught by surprise by the effort to dump him. Toomin was first elected to the bench in 1984 and became presiding judge of the Juvenile Court in 2010.

“This whole thing has been kind of an eye opener for me,” Toomin said, noting he has always had the support of the bar associations in his previous retention bids.

Judge Michael Toomin at the Thompson Center in 2012.
Judge Michael Toomin at the Thompson Center in 2012.
Brian Jackson~Sun-Times file

Toomin was originally elected to the bench as a Republican, another point Kelly raised in his explanation for why Democrats should oppose his retention.

Toomin said that shouldn’t have any bearing on whether he remains a judge.

“If we’re following the law and do the right thing, that should be it,” he said.

Being outside the Democratic Party apparatus has made Toomin a convenient choice for Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans when looking for a judge to appoint to decide whether to bring in a special prosecutor in politically sticky situations.

Only two Democratic committeepersons voted against the effort to dump Toomin —Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) and Ald. Tom Tunney (44th). Lightfoot is not a committeeperson, so the Democratic mayor had no vote in the matter.

Unlike in Coghlan’s situation, there has been no grassroots movement to get rid of Toomin, at least none that has surfaced publicly. And unlike Araujo, Toomin has not been the subject of any disciplinary investigation by the courts.

Kelly said the Foxx situation “didn’t have any role in my consideration of the issue,” except to cause him to consider not pursuing Toomin’s ouster because of the potential fallout.

“I thought it was important for the children in the juvenile system that I play it straight,” Kelly said.

I should have known. It was for the children.