Thursday, May 11, 2017

On media, money, and recent headlines

Channel 11's Chicago Tonight featured a panel discussion a week ago Monday with Law Bulletin editor Marc Karlinsky, former Circuit Court Judge Edmund Ponce de Leon, and John Marshall Law School Professor Samuel V. Jones, a discussion that started with the current headlines---the indictment of Judge Jessica O'Brien and the resignation of Judge Richard Cooke---but was repeatedly steered (in my opinion) by moderator Carol Marin back to the typical local media talking points: "Merit" selection (and the public's ignorance of who serves in the judiciary), the unhealthy political control over the judicial election process, the inability to throw out judges in local retention elections, and the potentially corrupting influence of money in judicial races. Watch the video yourself to see if you agree.

Ms. Marin may have struck all the conventional notes but, in his discussions with the Chicago Sun-Times following his resignation, ex-Judge Richard Cooke departed from the traditional narrative:

Of course, FWIW readers are presumably unsurprised by allegations of politics going on behind closed doors at the county courthouses. We might prefer that our judges all be members of a contemplative commune of black-robed legal philosophers---or we might say that this is what we prefer---but the reality is that we choose these men and women in a political process. (Associate judges are chosen by the elected judges in a different, but at least equally political process).

I have no opinions about the alleged conflict that Cooke said made it inappropriate for him to report to Traffic Court. I have had no opportunity to independently assess whether Cooke's concerns were or were not well-founded.

I do know that almost all new judges start out in Traffic Court. Traffic courtrooms are generally high-volume courtrooms and I believe that handling a room like that would usually be quite different from anything a new judge might have done before. In Traffic Court, new judges get a crash course in commanding the attention of a busy courtroom, assessing witness credibility, functioning as a neutral (quite different from being an advocate of one side or the other), and in making prompt decisions (there's not a lot of room for let-me-get-back-to-you-on-this in Traffic Court). Most new judges have little or no specific Traffic Court experience before going on the bench, but Traffic Court is considered to present legal issues that most judges can pick up quickly -- after all, most judges at least drive cars and have some familiarity with traffic law if only from that.

But, if almost all new judges go through Traffic Court, that means that not all do. There is no statute or ordinance that has been called to my attention that requires new Cook County judges to serve an apprenticeship in Traffic Court. In fact, by coincidence, about six weeks ago, at an Appellate Lawyers luncheon, one of the justices at my table recounted how he had never sat one day in Traffic Court; because of his extensive trial experience he was put immediately in a small claims courtroom instead. These "11th floor courtrooms" -- non-jury civil courtrooms on the 11th floor of the Daley Center -- are often the second assignment for new judges after Traffic Court. But these rooms are also fairly high-volume courts where some of those same initial lessons in how to be a judge may also be learned.

I also know that our Cook County court system is one of the largest unified court systems in the world; there are a lot of different assignments. So I don't know that it was really necessary for Chief Judge Evans and new Judge Cooke to wind up at loggerheads. One can't help but think that there might have been some agreeable compromise available, if both sides were willing.

Having said all that, of course, I freely admit that, if I were offered the opportunity to sit in Traffic Court, I'd sprint for the Daley Center escalator before anyone could change their mind. I suppose that many FWIW readers would do the same.

In my case, I will never have to worry about it. Even if I did have $500,000 or $600,000 that I could squander on an election campaign (¡ojal√°!), those funds would probably not pave the kind of uncontested path to a judgeship that Mr. Cooke had.

Cooke was well-known to the political leaders in the 6th Subcircuit; he'd donated time and money to causes they held near and dear; he'd gained favorable attention from the operation of his legal clinic. I, on the other hand, would be---despite running this blog for many years---a stranger to most of the political operatives in my backyard (at best I'd be a nodding acquaintance). Sixth Subcircuit politicians had reason to believe that Cooke could (and would, if forced) spend his enormous war chest wisely and run a good campaign; on the other hand, politicians in my neck of the woods would at least be sorely tempted to see if I knew how to use my money effectively. And professional politicians can bleed a candidate, make no mistake. Petition challenges may be unfounded, but they are fraught with peril for the uninitiated, and expensive for all concerned. If I survived the inevitable challenges, and knocked any phantom candidates off the ballot, there would still be at least one well-funded challenger. Probably one with a much better-sounding Irish name than mine. Would I have enough savvy to seek out and enlist the aid of experienced political operatives (and follow their good advice) -- or would I throw away my money on buttons and newspaper advertisements? In my quest for good advice would I take on an adviser who was really working on behalf of maintaining the status quo? As the old saying goes, politics ain't beanbag.

Money alone, even large stacks of the stuff, carries with it no guarantee of success in the quest for any political office. (Remember how much money Jeb Bush had? That's why people who fret about the corrosive influence of money per se in politics are focused on a single tree in a tangled forest.) Richard Cooke was smart enough, and connected enough, to use his money as leverage to obtain his goal.

Cooke was no political naif. Thus, whatever the accuracy or merit of his specific contentions, Cooke's comments to the Sun-Times about a different level or species of politics being practiced within the judiciary suggest that clout outside the courthouse does not necessarily translate to clout within. As someone who believes in the importance of judicial independence, I find some comfort in this. A little, anyway.