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Legal groups’ Cook County judicial recommendations has little sway on voters

Dec. 30, 2008 – When Judge Vanessa A. Hopkins was reelected as a circuit court judge with nearly 70 percent of the vote last month she felt relieved, grateful and vindicated by the voters of Cook County.

Hopkins is one of three Cook County judges who won reelection despite not having the endorsement of one of the most prestigious law associations.

"The Chicago Bar Association did not elect me. The people did," said Hopkins.

Judges, up for retention every six years, must receive a yes vote of at least 60 percent to be retained. There were 68 judges up for retention on the ballot in November, three of whom were voted not recommended by the Chicago Bar Association.

Local bar associations play a major role in the electoral process. In Chicago there are about a dozen bar associations that conduct judicial ratings similarly to the procedure conducted by the Chicago Bar Association.

However, if voter trends are any indication of the effectiveness of judicial ratings by the Chicago Bar Association and other bar associations, the system is arguably somewhat flawed. Voters have consistently retained judges not recommend for the last 18 years. For example, the three judges voted not recommended by the Chicago Bar Association were all retained in the 2008 election.

Rita Frye, the chair of the Chicago Bar Association Judicial Evaluation Committee, believes the evaluation process is just. Frye also had a long career as a public defender.

"I think the process is about as fair and procedurally correct as it can be," said Frye. "I don't know of anything to make it better."

The Chicago Bar Association is one of the oldest bar associations and consists of roughly 22,000 lawyers and judges from Cook County and the state of Illinois. Membership is voluntary. The association has a judicial evaluation committee that conducts evaluations of judges seeking retention or judicial offices in Cook County.

The 200-member committee then reports its findings to the public prior to elections. This year the Chicago Bar Association completed the evaluation on Sept. 25.

The judicial committee's screening process is voluntary, meaning judges have the option of deciding whether or not they would like to go before the committee. Candidates are evaluated based on integrity, legal knowledge, legal ability, professional experience, judicial temperament, diligence, punctuality and health factors. If judges do not like the findings they can go through an appeal process.

Malcolm Rich, executive director of the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, believes that voters need to listen and take heed of recommendations from professional bar associations.

"The evaluations give voters some guidance," said Rich. "They [bar associations] are able to identify the worst candidates and I only wish the voters would listen more carefully."

Rich said the retention ratings are valid in terms of identifying the worst temperament, courtroom management and overall ability.

Rich believes the historic presidential election helped to improve judicial retention voter patterns. He said judges recommended by the various bar associations received the highest percent of yes votes and those voted not recommended received the lowest number of yes votes in the 2008 election.

But for Bonnie McGrath, vice president of the Decalogue Society of Lawyers and professor of legal journalism at Columbia College Chicago, that is not enough. McGrath has sat on panels for the Alliance Bar Association and the Decalogue Society of Lawyers that have conducted judicial evaluations.

"It's a horrible system," said McGrath. "I'm very disappointed with the system."

McGrath's disappointment stems from the premise that the system is too political.

"Most judges have friends in the Chicago Bar Association," said McGrath. "That friend can find out when the evaluation is and come sit in on it."

That friend can then work in favor or against the judicial candidates seeking approval from the various bar associations.

Frye denies that the process is political and has advice for those who believe it is.

"I would encourage them to get involved in the process," said Frye.

Hopkins has no interest in getting involved in the process.

"The Chicago Bar Association is a special interest group. Why do I say that? Because they promote their own interest," said Hopkins.

Hopkins has been a judge for 12 years. Prior to becoming a judge she worked as an associate for the law firm of J.L. Jones and Associates in Chicago and then started and managed her own firm. The Chicago Bar noted that Hopkins worked as a lawyer for only two years and weighed that fact heavily in her evaluation. But Hopkins doesn't believe that fact is relevant at all.

"I wasn't a 27-year-old fresh out of law school," said Hopkins. "I was a mature woman."

Outside the courtroom Hopkins enjoys mentoring youth. In 2007 Hopkins received the Rainbow Push Save the Children Award. Inside the courtroom Hopkins handles civil jury litigation.

Hopkins is passionate about her life both inside and outside the courtroom. Regardless of the Chicago Bar Associations ratings she still loves being a judge.

"Judges' work is unique, its novel, said Hopkins. "Each day is new."

Julie Roin, Seymour Professor of Law at the University of Chicago law school, believes that regardless of procedure or interest, the judicial ratings have no effect whatsoever on voters.

"Judicial ratings aren't salient enough for the public to get involved," said Roin. "My impression is the only people that pay attention to these ratings are the lawyers."

Roin said the only way voters will be inclined to get involved is if the issue affects them directly. She said that voters fail to grasp the role of judges and how their retention relates to their everyday lives.

Jacqueline Potoczek, a resident of Logan Square on the North Side, believes that the ratings do affect her everyday life.

"I research the judges on the ballot because they have so much power," said Potoczek. "I usually google their names or go to their websites to find out more about them and how they rule."

Potoczek is a consistent voter. She said the judicial retention ratings offer insight, but she relies on herself to make the final decision about what judge is qualified or not.

"It's my right as a voter, so I must engage and research," said Potoczek.

But Keisha Boyd, a consistent voter from south suburban Chicago Heights, does not feel the need to research the judges.

"I used to research them, but those who are not recommended always seem to get reelected so I stopped," said Boyd.

Boyd said that it is sometimes disheartening when judges are reelected against recommendations from bar associations.

"I don't understand why the ratings even exists if no one listens to them," said Boyd.

Rich believes that he and the Appleseed Fund for Justice have a solution to the judicial retention debate.

"Judicial retention ratings can be improved by having a judicial performance committee," said Rich.

Rich said that the weakness of the evaluation system is the bar associations involve volunteers. He believes that is unfair and by eliminating the volunteers and establishing a paid committee the system will be improved.

The planning committee is called the Illinois Performance Committee. Several members have been chosen already based on merit.

Rich believes that the use of a judicial performance committee will provide voters with credible and more in-depth information, thus educating them better than present bar association evaluations.

Rich is working with the Chicago Council of Lawyers, the League of Women Voters of Illinois, and others to create and pass legislation that will manage the judicial process in Illinois as a single legislative body.

McGrath doubts the effectiveness of such a committee.

"No matter who is picking the people for this committee, there's still going to be politics involved.  It's the way the system works," said McGrath.

Instead McGrath believes that the final decision of the validity of judicial retention ratings and ratings procedure flawed or not should still rest in the hands of voters.

"I trust the voters. It's a democracy. You trust voters for everything else," said McGrath.

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