For the first time in 30 years, the Cook County judicial map has been redrawn with the aim of further diversifying the ranks of judges and making it easier for those with less money and political influence to run for court.
The Judicial Circuits Districting Act of 2022, which Illinois lawmakers enforced in the General Assembly last week and Governor JB Pritzker signed on Friday, increases the number of subdistricts in Cook County from 15 to 20 and requires their boundaries to be based on the census Data is redrawn every 10 years.
The law won’t go into effect for this year’s election, but it could change the way Cook County’s judicial elections work for years to come.
Investigations that reveal, influence and inform. Sent directly to you by email.
Approximately two-thirds of Cook County’s district judges are currently elected from the sub-districts, while the others are district-wide elected. Candidates for sub-circuit races must live in the sub-circuit and collect only 667 nomination petition signatures to get on the ballot (compared to more than 2,500 for district-wide races), making these races for independent base candidates, The Democratic Party makes those who do not have the support more accessible. Once elected, being a district or subordinate candidate does not affect a judge’s duties or responsibilities.
In response to complaints from Republicans and black and Latinx communities that the judiciary was insufficiently representative, state legislatures first started judicial undercutting in 1991. In the years thereafter, Cook County’s color judges have increased somewhat, but the bank is still disproportionately white and male compared to the county’s population. As of May 2021, 71% of incumbent elected judges were white, according to the Chief Justice’s Office, while the county’s population is less than half white, according to the 2020 census.
Research shows that the presence of different judges creates more public confidence in the judicial system, even if the diversity of the judiciary does not lead to differences in the application or interpretation of the law. Having judges who reflect a community’s demographics prevents a group’s prejudice from unduly prevailing in the courts.
Cook County Circuit judge Robert Balanoff, who has publicly called for more diversity on the bench, said there was a large personal bias in the work he and his colleagues did.
“(Judges) bring their prejudices, their stereotypes, their upbringing and their training to the jury,” said Balanoff, who was elected from the 1st sub-group in 2004.
But in the three decades since the sub-districts were founded, population shifts have changed the racial and ethnic makeup of the district and the population of the sub-districts has become out of whack. Some of the subcircles were no longer representative of the communities for which they were intended. For example, the sixth district on the northwest side of Chicago – originally one of two Latinx-majority districts – now has a white-majority population, according to a data analysis submitted to state lawmakers by political advisor Frank Calabrese. Meanwhile, the latest census data shows that more than a quarter of the county is now Latinx.
The new map for Cook County includes five predominantly black sub-circles (out of four), four predominantly Latinx sub-circles (out of one), and four sub-circles in which Asians are the largest non-white ethnic group. The sub-districts now have a more even population of about 264,000 each.
Young Woon Han, an organizer of the HANA Center, an immigrant rights organization that represents Asian-American and Pacific islander communities, said the new card will “increase bank representation” for Asian Americans.
“There is a unique experience as an Asian-American immigrant,” Han said. “A judge who looks like us can have a better understanding and a new perspective in interpreting the law.”
But not everyone thinks that the new map offers their community sufficient political representation.
“We are a bit disappointed. We would have liked more attempts to hold the (Orthodox Jewish) community together, ”said Rabbi Shlomo Soroka, lobbyist for Agudath Israel from Illinois. Soroka was among several proponents who asked that the Redistribution Committee for the Orthodox Jewish Congregation of Skokie, Lincolnwood, and West Ridge, Chicago, be incorporated into a sub-district. In the final map, the community is divided into the 9th and 10th sub-circles.
Other critics said the democratic super majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate had accelerated the process of redistributing the sub-districts, which would damage transparency and public opinion. The first draft of the new bill for sub-circuit maps (covering Cook County and eight other circuit courts across the state) was released on January 3, with the final version following two days later. The Democrats passed the 389-page bill in both houses on January 5 after 9 p.m. as an amendment to an independent bill approved months earlier by bipartisan committees.
Republican MP Tim Butler, the minority leader on the House Redistribution Committee, criticized the Democrats for creating the new cards behind closed doors, saying the cards benefited from more time.
“We would have a really good opportunity to evaluate this better and to hear the concerns that have been expressed, particularly in Chicago, about how this is affecting communities,” said Butler, whose 87th district is between Springfield and Peoria. “As is so often the case with reallocations, there is hardly any time to examine this massive bill.”
In the last days of last year’s legislative period, the legislature extended its own deadline for the redistribution of the sub-district to 2022. But Senate President Don Harmon (D-Oak Park), who supported the bill in this chamber, defended the quick revision of the sub-circle with the words: the legislature was already behind with the redistribution.
“We were hoping to redistribute partial circles in time for the 2022 elections, but as a concession to reality, we’ve postponed most of these changes until the 2024 elections,” he told Injustice Watch. Refusing to say who was actually involved in the actual drawing of the new cards or how decisions were made about the exact subcircuit boundaries, he raised concerns about possible pending lawsuits regarding the new subcircuit cards.
New sub-circuits could cost the Cook County Democrats
The rush to approve the reassignment of the sub-circuits has left questions unanswered as to how the five new sub-circuits will be judged.
The law states that starting in June, the next 55 vacancies in Cook County’s county judicial offices will be reassigned to the new lower courts until each lower court has 11 judges. Currently, 97 judges are elected to district-wide judges’ seats, while 164 are elected from the 15 existing sub-districts. (There are also 125 assessors chosen by the district judges.)
When the original 15 sub-circles were drawn, 30 new judges were created, with two seats allocated to each of the sub-circles. Some adjunct judgeships have also been converted into elected seats in subsidiary circles. The remainder were assigned to subcircles over time as the seats were vacated by judges previously elected as residents of Chicago or any suburb of Cook County.
However, the new law does not create new judicial offices or convert the offices of associate judges into elected seats. That would mean a greatly reduced number of district courts in the coming years.
This is good news for outsiders and independents looking to run for judge but could spell financial disaster for the Cook County Democratic Party.
The party makes advocates and helps candidates run for statewide judicial seats in exchange for a contribution of $ 40,000 to the party’s electoral treasury. This money will be used for campaigning, lawyers, mailers and campaigning for all of the party’s candidates in an electoral cycle. With around eight to twelve vacancies across the county per electoral cycle, the party’s planned candidates in the judiciary can raise nearly $ 500,000, which is half of all the funds the party spends in each electoral cycle, according to Jacob Kaplan, executive director of the Democratic Party from Cook County.
But the party makes no endorsements or finances races in sub-circles. If the next 55 vacancies across the county are converted to sub-county vacancies, it could mean more than a decade in lost campaign revenue for the party.
Harmon, who is also the Democratic Committee person for Oak Park Township and chair of the party’s district court selection board, said the intent of the law is “to reassign some but not all of the (statewide) judicial posts to the new sub-districts. If people read the law differently, we’ll be happy to go over it again. “
Other judicial election watchers and political insiders said the law is clear in the way the new sub-districts will be filled. But there is still plenty of time for state lawmakers – many of whom are responsible for key factions and committees in Springfield and also within the Cook County’s Democratic Party – to change this part of the law, which won’t come into effect until June . Harmon said lawmakers have no intention of creating new court seats in Cook County, but would not say how else to seat the new sub-districts if not in the way the law currently provides.
“We are reviewing the bill,” Kaplan told Injustice Watch last week, but did not want to comment. “It’s all too early.”
Nor would he say whether the party could start sponsoring (and collecting contributions) candidates in subcircus races if the law stays as it is written. “That would have to be decided by the party leadership.”
Explore the new judicial districts using the interactive map below.