Over the past three years, his blog has tracked the litany of shocking stories coming out of Chicago area judicial elections — shocking, that is, for anywhere except Cook County. There, it seems, the sulfurous mix of identity politics, voter ignorance, and unscrupulous candidates is a way of life.
This week, the Chicago Sun-Times and Injustice Watch added another depressing data point: “sham” judicial candidates who are placed on the ballot simply to confuse voters and throw the election. Here’s how it is alleged to work: when it appears that a candidate preferred by the city’s Democratic establishment is at risk of losing a judicial race, one or more “sham” candidates will enter the race and be added to the ballot. The “sham” candidates are not real, in the sense that they expend no money on the campaign, conduct no campaign events (and often barely have a campaign website), and don’t seem sincerely interested in a judicial post. But these “sham” candidates do have something in common: names that appeal to voters’ identity politics (which is Chicago, translates mostly to feminine -sounding first names and Irish surnames). The expectation is that voters, who have done no research on the judicial candidates on the ballot, will simply vote for those who sound like Irish-American women. (And there is proof that this expectation plays out in real life.) The “sham” candidates confuse enough voters to draw votes away from the non-establishment candidate, allowing the establishment candidate to prevail.
It’s doesn’t always work. The article, for example, relates how the presence of alleged “sham” candidate Bonnie McGrath in 2016 was not enough to prevent the victory of non-establishment candidate Carol Gallagher. And the alleged “sham” candidates have protested that despite their utter lack of campaign activity, their desire to be judges is sincere. But let’s be honest: the entire process is still shameful — or at least it should be, if the party bosses behind this ruse were capable of shame.
This blog has followed the story of Phillip Spiwack, a Chicago-area lawyer who legally changed his name in 2012 to Shannon O’Malley. The reason for the change: he was planning to run for judge in Cook County, and recognized the stubborn reality that having an Irish woman’s name would be a valuable commodity at the polls.
Spiwack lost his first race in 2010 while using his original name. The next year, the DePaul Law Review published a study showing that Cook County judicial candidates with Irish and female names tended to have an advantage in judicial elections. Spiwack changed his name to Shannon O’Malley shortly thereafter, and then deliberately sat out judicial races for the next several cycles to circumvent a state law requiring candidates who undergo a name change within three years of an election to disclose their old names on the ballot.
The plan worked. O’Malley won his election last week, even though he refused to submit his qualifications to any local bar associations and therefore did not receive any bar recommendations.
O’Malley may or may not prove to be a good judge. But this whole episode speaks poorly of the low-information judicial voters in Chicago.
Cook County’s efforts to implement an electronic filing system has run into its fair share of obstacles over the past year. Last November, the Courthouse News Service filed suit against the county, alleging that the clerk’s office was delaying the posting of public documents online, in violation of the First Amendment. In December, the Illinois Supreme Court gave the county a six-month extension to implement its e-filing system (half the time the county requested), and ordered it to commit all necessary resources to completing the transition. In January, a judge issued an injunction in the Courthouse News Service case which gave the county 30 days to develop a system that would give the press full access to newly filed cases.
After months of turmoil, the e-filing system is now in place. And people don’t like it. At all.
In theory, e-filing is supposed to increase access to the courts, enabling people without an attorney in civil cases to submit legal documents from a computer instead of trekking to a courthouse. But many paralegals and attorneys who find the mandatory platform confusing worry that it’s not user-friendly for people filing motions on their own. The system, launched July 1 by an Illinois Supreme Court order, also requires registrants to have an email address and an electronic form of payment, something advocates say can create barriers for low-income people.
Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown said she is working with the vendor, Texas-based Tyler Technologies, to make the platform more intuitive. But the changes need to be approved by the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts because they are part of a statewide program, Brown said.
“It’s been very challenging and difficult for our users as well as our staff,” Brown said. “We’re really asking our users to be patient.”
Late last year, the Cook County (Ill.) Board ordered the termination of nearly 180 county court employees, in light of rampant financial problems throughout the county. That action spurred Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans to file a lawsuit against the Board to enjoin the layoffs. Chief Judge Evans argued that even though the Board had power to set the courts’ budget, it did not have the authority to target individual employees for layoffs.
The Lake County Circuit Court agreed in December, issuing a temporary restraining order against the county to prevent the layoffs. Now, nearly eight months later, the parties have reached a settlement.
Both sides are claiming victory. The Board is saying that the settlement amount is “much lower than what was initially demanded” and that it will promote efficiencies in the court system. Chief Judge Evans points to the loss of only 22 jobs (as opposed the the initial 180), and his belief that “the lawsuit made clear that the county board had no authority to lay off court employees.”
Cook County Judge Jessica Arong O’Brien, convicted by a federal jury of mortgage fraud and facing a sentencing hearing in October, has refused to step down from the bench and continues to collect her nearly $200,000 yearly salary. Now the state’s Judicial Inquiry Board has asked the Illinois Courts Commission to suspend her pay pending a full hearing on removal from office.
In a fascinating bit of chutzpah, O’Brien recently filed paperwork to seek retention in the upcoming election. That seems unlikely, but O’Brien is making a strong push for inclusion in the (already spacious) Cook County Judges Hall of Shame.
This blog has been following a First Amendment challenge to the filing practices in the Cook County (Illinois) courts. In November, the Courthouse News Service filed a federal lawsuit, alleging that Cook County was violating the First Amendment by denying the press and the public immediate access to electronically filed civil cases. In January, the federal district court agreed, and issued an injunction giving the Cook County Clerk’s Office 30 days to implement a new procedure.
That procedure has yet to be implemented, and the federal district court has twice rejected motions to stay the injunction. Now the clerk’s office has appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the federal courts never should have heard the case under the abstention doctrine announced in Younger v. Harris. No word yet from the Seventh Circuit.
I have more extensive thoughts on this entire lawsuit here.
The LSE Blog features some interesting new research by University of Texas Professor Brent Boyea on the intersection of partisan elections, campaign contributions, and professionalized courts. Looking at 12 years’ worth of data from state high court elections, Boyea found that campaign contributors are nearly twice as generous, on average, in states with partisan judicial elections than they are in states with nonpartisan judicial elections. He also found that “contributors support candidates more actively in states with professionalized courts where judges have higher salaries, advanced resources, and courts have freedom to decide their agenda.” And contributors are most generous when elections are partisan and courts are professionalized. This suggests, to me at least, that campaign contributors expect to get the most “bang for the buck” in states where a candidate’s election is all but assured on partisan grounds, and the elected judge will later have some freedom to act in a manner consistent with the contributor’s own agenda.
Somewhat related is this story out of Illinois, discussing how attorney Phillip Spiwack legally changed his name to Shannon O’Malley in advance of his campaign for a Cook County judgeship. Spiwack/O’Malley appears to be conceding to a stubborn reality of Chicago judicial elections: having an Irish woman’s name is an extraordinarily valuable commodity at the polls—more valuable, it seems, than professional experience, skill, or judicial temperament.
These items add to a growing body of evidence that in judicial election states, citizens are virtually expected to come to the polls armed with no more information than a candidate’s party affiliation or surname. How this advances the integrity, efficiency, or legitimacy of the judicial system is beyond me.
(Cross-posted at Prawfsblawg.)