THE BLOG
10/29/2012 01:57 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2012

Separating the Wheat From the Chaff: Distinguishing Great State Judges in Illinois' Partisan Judicial Elections

In Illinois, we elect state court judges. We're one of 23 states that do, but one of only eight states that do so in partisan fashion. Voting for judges on ballots with party affiliations alongside their names creates a couple of issues. First, it naturally causes the state judiciary to fall victim to specific political influences, introducing partiality in a realm where we deserve impartiality. Second, political polarization removes the thought from an exercise that should be imbued with it; that is, who's presiding over state court matters?

The current process supports lazy voting, as people punch a straight party ticket, overlooking highly qualified judges our state desperately needs. Until Illinois residents demand an end to the partisan judicial elections, moving to merit-based nominations and appointments, the state will lack qualified judges that we deserve.

To be sure, most people don't believe they'll ever end up in a courtroom. Until voters find themselves suing or being sued (think medical malpractice, divorce (personal or business) or myriad of other reasons they may land in the legal hot seat), the homework required to select judges can seem overly burdensome. So, we all should ask ourselves: Do we wish to appear before smart, conscientious judges or ones elected based on party affiliation?

Imagine the feeling of absolute vulnerability when standing before a judge, a complete stranger wielding ultimate power at that moment. It's then one is forced to trust her qualifications to make decisions affecting one's life, livelihood or personal economics. And let me tell you, I've seen the face of frightened litigants, and I feel for them.

Who am I to sit in judgment of our judges? I'm one of the few impartials in a very partial system. In lawsuits, there are plaintiffs (for) and defendants (against). I'm neither. I'm the silent fly on the wall who has reported these proceedings for more than a quarter century. A professional observer. I am a court reporter. To use that overused phrase I hear daily: I have no dog in this fight.

So how do voters undertake this daunting task of parsing out the qualified from unqualified? Among a variety of resources voters can use, my favorite is www.voteforjudges.org. There, the Chicago Council of Lawyers has already done all the legwork. The Council is nonpartisan in its critiques of our state court judges, helping voters determine whom to retain.

The Council's rating system breaks down into four categories: Qualified, Well Qualified, Not Qualified and Not Recommended. Based on my years of exposure to the bench, I found myself in complete agreement with the Council's assessments. Look for "Well Qualified" and let that be your guide.

The Council found 18 judges Well Qualified; their selection demonstrates that their ratings were not handed out willy-nilly.

Take, for example, Hon Peter Flynn, currently up for retention and rated Well Qualified. The Council characterized him as among the smartest and best judges in the county, with a thorough understanding of both law and procedure, exhibiting an even temperament, known to be calm and fair. They said his courtroom is a level playing field where even pro se litigants (the unrepresented) are treated respectfully and fairly.

In contrast, 13 judges received a "Not Qualified" rating, particularly interesting since they are currently on the bench, some having been retained after having been previously labeled "Not Qualified."

A good argument can be made against electing our state court judges in Illinois and moving to a merit-based system of appointment. Unless our current system of electing judges changes, voters are left with the daunting task of separating the wheat from the chaff. This exercise in civil responsibility all boils down to this one important fact: How we are judged and who we are judged by is our choice. Choose wisely.