The late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said judicial elections are "a very bad way to select judges" during an appearance last year at the University of Chicago. However, in Illinois, that’s still the way it’s done.
On this year’s ballot, Hyde Park voters will see a number of judges seeking retention on the Illinois Supreme and Appellate courts and the Circuit Court of Cook County.
The Cook County Democratic Party, with some Hyde Park politicians centrally involved in the decision-making process, are withholding support from two circuit judges: Mauricio Araujo and Michael Toomin. Araujo, who has been accused of multiple counts of sexual harassment, resigned Oct. 5.
A statement about the Democrats’ decision to deny Toomin their endorsement called him, as the presiding judge of the Cook County Juvenile Justice division, "out of touch" and leading "with an outdated 'scared straight' approach to our children."
Asked about the Democratic Party’s vetting process for endorsements, Ald. Leslie Hairston, the 5th Ward's Democratic committeewoman and vice chair of the party's Judicial Retention Committee, deferred to committee chair Eamon Kelly, who declined an interview before Herald press time.
Almost immediately after the Democrats announced their decision, observers cast it as retribution against Toomin for having appointed a special prosecutor to investigate how Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx (D) and her office handled the prosecution of Jussie Smollett, who was indicted for faking an alleged 2019 hate crime against him in Chicago. (Foxx faces Republican Pat O'Brien and Libertarian Brian Dennehy on the general election ballot, as well.)
“What this appears to be is retaliation for some perceived failing of my service as a presiding judge, and retaliation means in this case a blatant rejection of the overruling conflict of judicial independence,” Toomin said, as reported by the Tribune. “It just seems like it was preordained, that this was the way it was supposed to be, and they arrived with the result that they wanted to. And that’s wrong.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said the Toomin situation "deeply concerns" her, that "the optics are terrible" and that it is good to have independent judges.
On Twitter, however, state Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th) scoffed at the suggestion that the Democratic Party’s non-endorsement had to do with the Smollett affair.
“Let’s set the record straight!” he said. “Judge Toomin should be infamous for mistreating children during covid at the juvenile detention center. Not Jussie. A lot of kids who deserved so much better were mistreated by this judge.”
Toomin sparked controversy in April when he made it harder for juveniles to seek release from detention during the coronavirus pandemic.
A party release announcing the withheld support for Araujo and Toomin called the endorsement process “a thorough, thoughtful and exhaustive report from the Judicial Retention Committee as part of an effort to root out judges who fail to live up to the ethics expected of the judiciary and who continue to mete out sentences that are more punitive than redemptive.”