The election for one of the most important roles in our justice system has come and gone. This post aims to cover the media coverage, significance, and ongoing controversies related to the Office of the Chief Judge at this critical time.
The September 15th election of the Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County – the biggest unified court system in the world – has come and gone. The Chicago Tribune and other mainstream media outlets made a laudable effort at keeping us informed in the days and weeks leading up to the election. In a moment of decimated newsrooms handling a flurry of election year reporting and high-profile police reform and accountability efforts, the media deserves credit for designating significant (virtual) ink to telling the public about the election of the Chief Judge and why it matters so much when we, the public, have little voice in selecting the person for the job.
On the day before the election, the Chicago Tribune reminded the tax payers of Cook County that, “At stake is a position that holds great sway over one of the nation’s largest judicial systems, exerting deep influence over cases ranging from traffic violations to murder trials” and also “Who controls Cook County’s massive court system is important; an ineffective system can harm those who pass through it and cost taxpayers greatly.”
On the day of the election, 232 of the 241 voting eligible judges cast ballots, and incumbent Chief Judge Tim Evans was re-elected by a mere 26 votes. Media coverage in the weeks and days leading up to the election was unprecedented and marked by flashpoints that we as Cook County residents should not forget. The press put real effort into prying open the black box of our vast and normally opaque court system. Let’s pry it open further by taking a look at what we learned, what to expect next, and what we should keep watching.
This latest election was considered the most serious challenge to Evans’s leadership since he became Chief Judge in 2001. One day before the election, a long-time political observer noted, “There is obviously a rebellion going on.” Evans faced challenger Tom Allen, a current judge and former alderman. Sandra Ramos, a current judge and former assistant state’s attorney and criminal defense lawyer withdrew her candidacy 2 days before the election took place.
Evans is a longtime figure in Chicago politics and a former alderman who lost the 1989 mayoral race to Richard M. Daley. Elected to City Council in 1973, he later served as floor leader for Mayor Harold Washington in the early 1980s. After Washington’s death in 1987, Evans made his first unsuccessful bid for mayor. Later, after losing his council seat, Evans ran successfully for circuit court judge in 1992. Nine years later, he defeated four challengers to become Cook County’s chief judge. The Tribune notes that, “Today, Evans heads a sprawling system that has 13 courthouses, with about 1.2 million criminal and civil cases pending at any given time. Besides the 386 circuit and associate judges, Evans supervises close to 2,700 employees and also heads the county juvenile temporary detention center and probation department. The court’s 2016 budget is nearly $236 million.”
Recap of controversy
Thanks to the Tribune’s outline and issues previously covered in this blog, we don’t have to look far for a synopsis of past issues originating from the Office of the Chief Judge.
- Shielding Embarrassing Cases: A 2012 investigation discovered judges improperly hiding from public scrutiny embarrassing court cases involving politicians, athletes, wealthy businessmen and others.
- Losing Track Of Probationers: In 2013, local media broke that the Adult Probation Department had lost track of hundreds of probationers and had overlooked curfew violations and new crimes by their clients. After three months, Evans made leadership changes.
- Armed Rogue Officers: A 2014 Tribune investigation “found that an armed unit of rogue officers had allegedly violated probationers’ civil rights. Evans hired a law firm to investigate the Tribune’s findings, but he has refused to release the firm’s report or even to say if he had disciplined any employees or referred any wrongdoing to authorities.”
- Systemic Bond Court Issues Exposed by IL Supreme Court: Also in 2014, the Illinois Supreme Court released a report into how the court system detains and releases people accused of crimes, outlining a lack of leadership and basic understanding of certain court services that led to people unnecessarily awaiting trial behind bars.
- Favoritism and Retaliation: Internally, fellow judges have criticized the management style and leadership of Evans, complaining that he often plays favorites in promotions and courtroom assignments. Fellow judges have made allegedly unheeded suggestions for improvement such as an increase in democratic input from judges, a professional administrator to provide expertise on hiring and budget management, and the public posting of job openings in the Office of the Chief Judge. Namely, Judge Patrick Murphy disclosed the following in a mass email: “I submit that our present system quells creativity, quashes dissent and quiets alternative approaches. … Individual judges are frequently afraid to speak out about issues.”
- Clerk Impersonating a Judge: A scandal at the Markham Courthouse uncovered in the weeks leading up to the election earned the Chief Judge’s race even more scrutiny. Although still unresolved and now in the hands of the Illinois Supreme Court after a request from the state commission that oversees lawyers, the Tribune described the incident as “a major embarrassment for the Cook County Circuit Court, one of the nation’s largest court systems, [which] helped spur an unsuccessful revolt against Chief Judge Evans.” In August, Rhonda Crawford, a law clerk and staff attorney for Chief Judge Evans, allegedly put on a judge’s robe and heard at least three traffic cases in the Markham courtroom of Judge Valarie Turner. The cases were since reheard in early September, but Crawford—who is running for Judge in the 1st Judicial Subcircuit—is still on the ballot. Evans’s office moved swiftly: Judge Valarie Turner was reassigned to administrative duties that do not include hearing cases and Rhonda Crawford was fired. Ms. Crawford has refused to remove herself from the November 8th ballot, however, and now faces a write-in candidate (though the pending suspension of her law license would make her ineligible to be a judge). This incident received front page attention in the October 15th print version of the Tribune.
- Organizing from African-American Clergy: As election day neared, the battle became more heated and more public. Judges complained about threats from African-American ministers to target them at the voting booth in the November general election if Evans was defeated, and public statements even outlined this plan. The day before the election, a group of African-American ministers and other clergy members threatened to retaliate against judges who did not vote for Evans, although it is unknown how the group intended to identify voters from the secret ballots. One pastor warned: “If we lose Judge Evans, our next move is to request of all African-Americans to not vote to retain judges in the November election. … If they turn their back on Judge Evans, we will turn our backs on them.” A local Bishop’s spokesperson declared, “To work against Tim Evans is a slap in the face of the African-American community”
When a hard-fought and close election ends in the maintenance of the status quo, there may be a sense of discouragement and fatalism among those that advocated for change; however, being forced to campaign can move elected officials to do more and push a threatened administration toward reform. There remain real limitations to the reforms that can be raised by judges: as Dick Simpson noted in the aforementioned Tribune article, “[i]t’s a pretty closed world […] A lot of it is whether the judges are satisfied with their own little world, and Tim Evans at the top. They’re not looking at the overall question of whether there will be change to the system.” Systemic changes require the sustained attention of the public and the media on the following three key areas.
In a time of incredibly tight budgets, the press must examine which projects are prioritized within the Office of the Chief Judge. Chief Judge Evans has touted his support for diversion programs and problem-solving courts when asked how he is improving the criminal courts. Will these and other alternative programs receive financial support and other investments from his office? Will judicial training in relevant areas be developed and implemented?
This past summer, Judge Evans appeared in the press again and again supporting the creation of a restorative justice community court in North Lawndale. Will this nascent project—currently in its planning phase—still be supported now that the election is over?
2. Assignment of Judges
One of the recurring charges against Judge Evans’s administration is that judicial assignments are doled out not of the basis of merit but based on clout or (for unwanted assignments) for the purposes of political retaliation. It is the role of the press and the public to scrutinize whether judges placed in powerful assignments are fit for those roles. Do problem-solving court judges have both the sensitivity and training to deal with the complex and nuanced needs of the people before them such as mental health issues, trauma, drug dependence, and homelessness? Are domestic relations, law division, and felony trial judges familiar with their respective subject matter? The public must also be able to examine whether the associate judge appointment process is truly putting in place talented and forward-thinking jurists.
3. Increased Accountability
Finally, the Office of the Chief Judge should be rendered more accountable to the broader public as opposed to just the judiciary. The current electoral structure and historical lack of public consciousness about the courts makes this difficult; however, the media has shown it can play a critical role in shining light into the court’s operations. The Office of the Chief Judge has a profound effect on the quality of justice in Cook County: It sets a standard for the hundreds of judges hearing all matter of cases, and its massive budget carries enormous secondary effects on the connected budgets of the health and hospitals system, the Cook County Department of Corrections, and many more. At a minimum, the Office of the Chief Judge should be expected to report publicly on the performance of the judiciary.
As election season comes to a close, we must keep demanding that the Office of the Chief Judge provide the budget priorities, judicial appointments, and public accountability that the Cook County justice system and all those impacted by it so desperately need.