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Medill News Service - Did Voters Listen to the Experts on Candidates for Judge? Maybe, Maybe Not...

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Medill News Service - Did Voters Listen to the Experts on Candidates for Judge? Maybe, Maybe Not...

Rob Runyan

More than 100 candidates were on the Feb. 5 primary ballots seeking 25 judicial spots.

The various bar associations tried to help voters find their way through the maze by educating them on whom they deemed qualified -- or not -- to take the bench.

So did voters listen? Did the most qualified candidates triumph?

The results are murky.

There was a sitting judge, rated "qualified" by the Chicago Bar Association, knocked off by a candidate given a "highly qualified" rating from the same association. This race seems to reflect that voters valued the ratings, especially considering it bucked another trend -- that of women winning if they were listed first on the ballot.

In this race, the incumbent, a woman, was listed first and lost.

"Where people didn't know or were uncertain, they opted to vote for either the first person on the ballot or the woman, if she happened to be the first person," said Rita Fry, the chair of the Judicial Evaluation Committee at the Chicago Bar Association.

That may have been the case in deciding another race in which a woman, Kristyna Ryan, was first on the ballot and, despite not having garnered approval from any of the 10 members of the Alliance of Bar Associations for Judicial Screening or the Chicago Bar Association, beat a candidate who was given a favorable rating by nine Alliance associations and the Chicago Bar Association.

That was not a strong indication of the weight voters gave to the evaluations. Neither was a nearly identical case that crowned another winner who lacked any recommendations from the 11 possible bar associations. This one won against a competitor given positive ratings by nearly all.

"How hard is it to learn the evaluations of those persons?" Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke asked. "But [voters] don't bother. So they may choose an ethnic name, a nationality, a woman, a man, and just vote."

Widening the scope to all 30 races reveals that the evaluations were at least good predictors, if not motivators. Only four candidates won without at least a "qualified" rating from the Chicago Bar Association.

Still, Fry said the groups that vet judicial candidates can do better.

"At least that percentage [of the races] paid attention," she said. "We would like that percentage to be greater."

The Chicago Bar Association has its own evaluating process that is separate from the alliance members, who interview candidates jointly. But the consensus is that each association has similar goals and thus follows the same standards and guidelines.

"All of us are trying to educate voters," said Terry Murphy, executive director of the Chicago Bar Association. "You can't attribute a special agenda to any bar association."

For instance the Asian-American Bar Association, an alliance member, according to Anne Shaw, president of the association, investigates all candidates in making recommendations.

"We want to see qualified judges on the bench," Shaw said.

There is an effort under way for the alliance members and the Chicago Bar Association to collaborate more, according to both Murphy and Shaw, and they will be working closely together in evaluating judges for November.

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