Injustice Watch, a non-partisan, not-for-profit multimedia journalism organization, hosted the inaugural event in its “Know the System” series on Monday The panel is laying the groundwork for future programs that aim to provide education and discourse around criminal justice issues in Chicago.
The discussion, moderated by Injustice Watch co-director Rick Tulsky, focused on Cook County associate judges and the role they play in the criminal justice system. Among the featured panelists were April Preyar of Shiller Preyar Law Offices, Malcolm Rich of Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice and Sharlyn Grace of Chicago Community Bond Fund.
Tulsky made mention of how troubling the system can be. There are currently several ways to become an elected judge in Cook County. They include:
- Running in the election for countywide circuit judge openings.
- Running in the election for circuit judge openings in one of the sub-circuits around the county.
- Votes taken by circuit judges to decide who will join them as associate judges.
Rich said that filling seats for associate judges presents an interesting complex. “This is one of the most important processes that nobody knows about, and the reasons for it is one-third of all Cook County judges are associate judges,” he said. “They’re elected by circuit judges through this process. It has the potential for being a real vehicle to improve the diversity and quality of the bench, and it has the potential to do the opposite.”
Associate judges typically serve four-year terms in Cook County. They form a separate slate from the elected circuit judges. Seating associate judges does not require the general public to weigh in. Instead, they are elected by way of ballots cast by a panel of circuit judges. However, this wasn’t always the case.
Rich said that before 2001, the process of electing associate judges was highly political. “After 2001, things dramatically changed and there were great improvements,” he said.
Rich added that it may appear that the system creates a less political process for filling seats for associate judges, but it involves a lot of the same antics playing out in elections for circuit judges. Still, as the evaluations of judges made by bar associations showed for several years. an increase in diversity and quality.
Rich said the same effect is not perceived by some to hold true today. “The question is was that just a fluke?” Rich asked. “We’re seeing those kinds of tests of quality going down, and we’re seeing fewer African American candidates selected.”
Preyar expressed her view of the criminal justice system and the effort to diversify the bench.
“For the longest time black candidates were getting left out, Latino candidates were getting left out [and] black female candidates were getting left out, but that’s starting to change,” she said. “I have a number of black female friends who have taken the bench. Public defenders and defense attorneys were getting left out of that equation. In almost every courtroom, it was a white male former prosecutor, which as a criminal defense attorney always works against us. So, it’s nice to see that wave changing through both the sub-circuit elections … and the recent appointments … made in the last few months.”
Bail reform is another part of the system that was addressed during the panel discussion. Grace said there are routinely six judges responsible for bail decisions in Cook County. “It used to be a saying among the defense bar advocates that you could tell who was on the bench, based on whether or not the number of people in the jail was going up or down because [of] the differences in how judges made decisions,” she said.
Several panelists noted the way the criminal justice system historically has destroyed black and brown lives. Grace said judges are supposed to set a high bar before they take away someone’s freedom if they’ve not been convicted of anything.
Several panelists spoke of the relationship between the media and criminal justice issues. As violent crime has decreased over the last several decades both locally and nationally, the media coverage has increased at the same time, which Grace said helps contribute to the issues with the criminal justice system.
“It’s a great fear of judges both elected and associate, to imagine that they will be blamed for essentially following a constitutional mandate to release most people,” she said.
One audience member called the criminal justice system into question when laws are removed from the books, asking if retroactive action made by judges and prosecutors is productive.
Rich tried to explain.
“Certain things like this can’t be undone, but we can certainly expose what has happened, which will ultimately change policy in the future,” he said.
Preyar shared a differing viewpoint.
“I think voting and informing people is about the only recourse you have for judges,” she said.
Typically, once judges are seated, there are limited ways to be removed from the bench.
“Like an attorney, if I do something wrong—if I defraud a client, if I steal money—I can be disbarred [and] I can be charged criminally,” Preyar said. “That really can’t happen to a judge. Most of these things can’t happen. There’s no real recourse. There’s something called the Judicial Inquiry Board, and almost nothing happens if you report a judge.”
Injustice Watch plans on holding another event as part of its “Know the System” series in September. The focus of that panel discussion will be policing and transparency.