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Upset by Smollett flap, judges refuse to kiss the ring with campaign donation — but will they tell Dems to kiss off?

It was a rare election-year display of political independence for the judges, who saw in the attack on Judge Michael Toomin a clear threat to their own autonomy.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, left; Cook County Circuit Judge Michael Toomin, right.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, left, at a news conference in July; Judge Michael Toomin, right, at a ceremony for newly elected judges in 2012. 
Pat Nabong, Brian Jackson/Sun-Times file

Cook County Democrats led by Party Chair Toni Preckwinkle may have picked a fight for which they hadn’t really bargained this week in seeking Judge Michael Toomin’s ouster from the bench in a bald political power play.

Late Wednesday night, the other Cook County judges seeking retention on the November ballot refused to fork over their usual $40,000 payment to the party’s get-out-the-vote effort — partly in protest of the Democrats’ decision to target Toomin for defeat.

In essence, they refused to kiss the ring.

It was a rare election-year display of political independence for the judges, who saw in the attack on Toomin, a respected veteran jurist, a clear threat to their own autonomy.

Whether this turns out to be a revolt from the Democratic Party itself or just a revolt from Preckwinkle’s leadership of the party remains to be seen.

But the decision by the judges to reject the traditional payment, on a 42-13 vote after a spirited debate, sent a clear message they don’t want the party using the retention process to push them around anymore.

I’m told Toomin did not participate in the two and a half hour Zoom meeting that preceded the vote.

But he was a main topic of discussion because of the Democratic Central Committee’s decision to oppose his retention just months after he agreed to name a special prosecutor to reopen the Jussie Smollett investigation, then named former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb to do the job.

Dan Webb, special prosecutor investigating the Jussie Smollett case, outside the Leighton Criminal Courthouse in February.
Dan Webb, special prosecutor investigating the Jussie Smollett case, outside the Leighton Criminal Courthouse in February.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

State’s Attorney Kim Foxx is facing re-election in November, and top Democrats would have just as soon allowed the bungled Smollett case to recede from voters’ memories by now.

To cover their tracks, party officials tried to make a case that Toomin does a poor job as presiding judge of Juvenile Court, an attack that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny even if he does have some detractors.

In practical terms, the decision by the judges to refuse payment to the party may not mean much. The money was expected to be used, as it usually is, for a pair of mailings asking Democratic voters to support the judges for retention.

The retention judges, who have their own joint campaign committee, can just as easily use that money to pay for their own mailings.

But the risk to the retention judges is that they need the support of Democratic voters to keep their seats on the bench, and therefore it helps to receive backing from Democratic leaders.

Elected Circuit Court judges in Illinois face a retention vote every six years. To stay on the bench, they need a “YES” vote from at least 60 percent of those voting.

Historically, the Democratic Party has supported all Cook County judges for retention, regardless of their bar ratings or political affiliation. Retention judges have come to rely on that support.

That’s not a good system either. Not every judge deserves job protection for life.

With Preckwinkle’s support, the party deviated from that practice in 2018 to back a successful campaign by advocacy groups to dump Judge Matthew Coghlan over his prior role as a prosecutor in a wrongful conviction case.

But the trick is how you pick and choose who is targeted, and Democrats got it all wrong by picking Toomin as this year’s fall guy.

Judge Michael Toomin in 2012.
Judge Michael Toomin in 2012.
Brian Jackson~Sun-Times file

Toomin, 82, was first elected to the bench in 1984 and has served as presiding judge in Juvenile Court since 2010. In his previous retention bids, he has always received favorable ratings from the bar associations and been supported by the Democratic Party, although he was originally elected as a Republican.

After the judges voted Wednesday, their Committee for the Retention of Judges in Cook County released a statement:

“Our legal system is based on the principle that an independent, fair and competent judiciary will interpret and apply the laws that govern us. That is the framework by which we conduct ourselves every day. Participating and supporting a plan that includes opposing one of our colleagues, Judge Michael Toomin, who embodies those principles, is a concern and something we as the 2020 retention class cannot support.”

A Democratic Party spokesperson declined comment.

In the not so distant past, it would have been unthinkable for Cook County’s judges to shrug off the Democratic Party’s control, even symbolically.

Here’s hoping that in the not so distant future, they find a way to take it a step further.