New Illinois Supreme Court Districts Bring Competition

Note: Appellate Court Judge Susan Hutchinson was unintentionally omitted from a candidate list in the above video. Hutchinson will be on the Republican primary ballot for the Second District.

 Illinois has a long history of electing its judges. 

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It’s something the state has done since 1848, according to Ann Lousin, a law professor at University of Illinois Chicago who was involved with drafting Illinois’ current constitution approved in 1970.  

Lousin says Illinois is one of 39 states that elect at least some (in the Land of Lincoln, most) of the judiciary. 

“We elect most of our judges,” Lousin said. “There is a group of judges called associated circuit judges who handle trials, and there are about 400 of them throughout the state, and they’re part of the circuit court. They’re appointed for four-year terms by the elected circuit judges.” 

Especially in Chicago, the multitude of judicial candidates can make for a long ballot that voters may find exhausting or confusing. 

Bar associations can help can help. 

They publicly distribute ratings that show whether they’ve deemed a candidate as qualified (or not), and typically include an explanation. 

Chair of the Chicago Bar Association’s Judicial Evaluation Committee Brian Boyle said theire is work that goes into the ratings process. Candidates must answer a confidential questionnaire; members of the association interview references; a committee interviews the candidates. 

Boyle said every candidate is treated “fairly and equally” as the would-be judges are judged on criteria such as legal expertise, legal ability, demeanor, work ethic and other qualifications such as commitment to public service. 

Boyle said a rating of not qualified shouldn’t be viewed as a permanent black mark. It can be that a candidate has been a lawyer for a decade, rather than the dozen years the association is looking for. 

Then again, it could be due to something more egregious. 

The lesson: Read the fine print. 

This year, there will be some very consequential judicial races toward the top of the ballot.

The Illinois Supreme Court is a seven-member body and justices win 10-year terms. After initially making it on the bench, in subsequent decades they’re up for what’s called “retention” in which justices need to reach a 60% threshold from voters. 

As with the Chicago City Council and Illinois legislature, the map of Supreme Court districts is new in 2022, due to redistricting. 

Unlike those other bodies, though, the Supreme Court map has shifted for the first time in decades. 

Many court-watchers believe adjustments are overdue because the northern part of the state – DuPage, Lake, Winnebago, Boone, DeKalb – have all grown in population while some areas further south have lost residents.

Those are long-running trends, and even as population shifted the map stayed the same despite the legislature having opportunities to make updates. 

Lousin said the impetus to make changes came after Justice Thomas Kilbride, a Democrat, became the first Illinois Supreme Court Justice to lose a retention bid in 2020. 

“Immediately the Illinois General Assembly, primarily the Democratic Party, said ‘we will have to redraw the districts.’ The argument is made, they’ve redrawn the districts to have at least one Democrat from downstate to combine with the three from Cook County, would make a permanent Democratic majority,” Lousin said. “We’ll see if that turns out to be the case.”

Per the state constitution, three of the seven Supreme Court justices are elected at large in the First District which comprises Cook County; all three seats are held by Democrats. 

The shifts in the shape of other districts combined with vacancies mean partisan battles are expected in the Third District. That vacancy was left by Kilbride and is currently held by Republican Justice Michael Burke who is seeking to win the race outright this fall against Democrat Appellate Court Judge Mary O’Brien. 

The Second District will also likely be competitive. That seat had been held by Justice Bob Thomas, who retired in 2020. The remainder of his ten-year term is being filled by Justice Robert Carter, who is not running to keep the seat. 

Suburban voters first will have choices to make in the primary election. 

Democrats running for the Second District seat are: Kane County Judge Rene Cruz, Lake County Associate Judge Elizabeth Rochford and Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering 

Running as Republicans are: Former Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran, Appellate Judge Susan Hutchinson, Circuit Court Trial Judge in Kane County John Noverini, and Deputy Chief Judge of the 19th Judicial Circuit Daniel Shanes of Lake County. 

Lousin says these races don’t often get a lot of attention from the media or voters. 

The furor over the U.S. Supreme Court’s pending abortion decision exemplifies the significance of the judicial branch. 

Judges are important on the state level, too, Lousin said. 

“We have had a very powerful Illinois Supreme Court. They run the entire judiciary through a system of rules. They make the appointments to fill the vacancies for instance,” Lousin said. “They publish the rules of evidence for the Illinois courts. That is very important for all cases that are being litigated in Illinois. The Supreme Court has what is called the ‘supervisory authority.’ And that means a lot of things – we’re not sure what the limits are.” 

The court also hears cases that rise up from the appellate level, important elections cases, and settles state constitutional questions. 

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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