By Drew Parker, who is a past Chairman of the Judicial Polling Committee for the Illinois State Bar Association.
Pop quiz: who is on the ballot for judge in the upcoming election? What do you know about them? When you go to the booth, your ballot in Peoria next week is going to look like this:
Do you know them? Do you know what they look like?
This is why the Illinois Judicial Advisory Polls are taken and published (click on this sentence for the current published results). These polls are here to help: imagine if you knew what other members of Congress thought about your Representative, through an anonymous survey of their fellow Representatives. Do they show up to work? Can they get along with others and get laws passed effectively?
This, uniquely, is what you actually have for judicial elections. Unfortunately, a significant portion of the public has a belief that lawyers are only interested in assuring that their friends become judges, and that there exists an element of “cronyism.” This is so very unfortunate.
In actuality, the process of asking lawyers about judicial candidates has been retooled and improved constantly. The questions have taken years of drafting by lawyers who volunteer their time to the Illinois State Bar Association. I served on this committee for nine years and chaired the statewide committee in my ninth year. As a result, I can personally attest to the good intentions of the members of the committee, most of whom are judges statewide.
There are more reasons to trust the results: Quite simply, all lawyers have an intense interest in finding the very best talent among those who wish to be judges. We aren’t going to pick judges that can get important decisions wrong for people’s lives. So, judges should have as much real trial experience in courtrooms as possible – and of course, intelligence, the right attitude,and patience.
Another important point here: the ballots are done completely anonymously, by mail. Lawyers sit in the privacy of their offices completing the surveys – so there’s no one around looking at how they get filled out, or pressuring to answer the questions a certain way.
The whole point has always been to summarize information on each candidate so that it’s accurately reported to the public, typically through newspapers. The Peoria Journal Star is actually one of the best newspapers in the State for this purpose and routinely makes a point of publishing the bar association polls in every judicial race, like this one from 3 days ago (click here). Other communities are not so lucky.
Remember that we’re different from other states because we actually elect judges, and many other states don’t. In other states such as Missouri, instead of electing judges they have an entirely non-political, merit selection system. Here in Illinois, the Bar Association recognizes that the public generally does not know the candidates for the judicial offices.
Without the polls, the public would realistically have no idea about any of these candidates unless they have a personal experience with one or more of them. There’s really no other way for voters to make a reasoned choice between the candidates. That’s why an anonymous survey of everyone in your local legal system who participates in it every day is how voters get the right call – and how lawyers get the judges who will make the right calls on cases.
Love it or hate it: this time, the lawyers actually do know what they are talking about.