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Lawyers aspiring to be Cook County judges lay it on thick

Judge Maureen Connors asks Cook County Democratic Central Committee slate her for Appellate Court. Ald. Edward Burke (14th) Committeeman Tim

Judge Maureen Connors asks the Cook County Democratic Central Committee to slate her for Appellate Court. Ald. Edward Burke (14th) and Committeeman Tim Bradford listen at left. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 7, 2011 8:05AM

What lines work best for getting Democratic Party bosses to slate you for judge in Cook County?

Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s Inspector General James Wright tries this one: “I have the credentials and the experience; I have an easy and memorable name; I guess I’m somewhat easy on the eyes...”

Mouths and eyes open wide among the 80 ward and township committeemen of the Cook County Democratic Party gathered at Plumbers Hall last month. Some burst into laughter at the compliment the plump former prosecutor pays himself. Some standing at the coffee-and-pizza table stop mid-chew and give each other puzzled looks.

For that and other reasons, they don’t slate Wright for judge.

Judge Maureen Connors has more luck with this approach as she seeks slating for the appellate court:

“I was born and raised in the 11th Ward, and I still have many friends and family and I group in with those friends Commissioner [John] Daley,” she says. “I then was adopted by the 14th Ward, by a wonderful man named [Ald.] Edward Burke (14th). I want to thank him for all the wonderful mentoring he has done for me over these many years both in the law and in politics.”

But even after naming two of the most powerful ward committeemen in the room, Connors has just begun to name-drop.

“I got married, moved to the 19th Ward — my husband is from the 19th ward,” she tells the committeemen. Some at the pizza-and-coffee table turn their heads as she names more names. “For 20 years I lived in the beautiful 19th Ward and, (She scans the room) Committeeman [Matt] O’Shea, are you here today? (He has left the room) He has promised to support me as well...”

She throws in a few more committeemen from the west suburbs — Daniel McLaughlin and Barrett Pedersen — then, almost as an after-thought, drops the big name:

“So I’m thrilled to be with you today — Oh, Senator Madigan also sends his regards — he says he is going to be supporting me as well. I am proud to be a member of this...”

She must stop and listen as Ald. Burke, seated next to her on the dais, corrects her: Mike Madigan, her main clout, the Speaker of the State House of Representatives and Chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party, was not a senator.

“Please don’t tell him I said that — I take that back,” Connors pleads with the laughing committeemen.

But it’s alright. Connors has already done her homework, lined up her chits from the most powerful committeemen. Her spot on the slate is virtually assured despite her flawed performance.

This is “The Slating.”

Every two years lawyers in Cook County who want to be judges come before this gathering and ask to be “slated” as the party’s preferred choice for judge in Democratic primary election March 20. The November general election is irrelevant as no Republican has won in decades.

Voters are more independent these days and they sometimes opt to vote for judicial candidates with prettier names — women with Irish ones do best.

But the official party imprimatur still works wonders. Slated candidates’ names go on the palm cards that the still-strong army of precinct captains across the county pass out to voters as they walk into the polling place. Five of the 10 slated candidates won last year.

Voters can make up their own minds on governor or senator — candidates they have heard something about. But chances are they will have heard nothing about the 100-plus names of lawyers running for 16-20 judgeships until they see the ballot on Election Day. They can make their choices based the gender or ethnicity of those names, or they can look at the palm card.

Committeemen pair off near the refreshment table or the back of the room to horse-trade votes. Candidates speak louder to be heard, prompting Committeeman Robert Martwick to admonish the chatty ward bosses to take their conversations out to the alley.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re still in session and if you have to talk, go outside would ya?” he asks. “I mean, that’s really discourteous to the people that are appearing.”

Some good lawyers survive this intensely partisan process to become good judges. And some party hacks take office and prompt Republicans to label Cook County’s courts an anti-business haven where plaintiff’s lawyers can win fat multi-million-dollar verdicts against corporations.

“The American Tort Reform Foundation, for 2010, once again ... identifies Cook County as being one of the worst, top-five, ‘judicial hell-holes,’ candidate Don Sampen tells the committeemen as he holds up a copy of the report. They gasp at his audacity. “I disagree with some of the conclusions reached in here. But I think it demonstrates at least one thing: We have at least a reputational problem here in Cook County.”

Sampen, a former top official of the state attorney general’s office, never had that much chance of being slated for appellate court. Though he ran for judge as a Democrat in the last election, he ran for judge as a Republican in 1998.

Instead, they slate Terry Lavin, former president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, who has donated more than $200,000 over the years to Democratic candidates.

“This is essentially a writing job,” Lavin says of the appellate court. “But there is a political aspect to it and I understand that ... I have been a loyal Democrat. I voted in each of the Democratic primaries last 20 years. I helped the Speaker [Madigan] out on a number of elections in the south suburbs, same thing for [former state senate president] Sen. Emil Jones. When the Democratic Party wanted somebody to go down and testify in Springfield, I did that. When they needed help writing legislation, I did that.”

Lavin’s command of the law shows in his courtroom victories as a trial lawyer. He will get good ratings from the bar associations. But this political process forces him and other lawyers to prostrate themselves before the ward bosses, talking about how many doorbells they have rung for candidates over the years instead of their command of the rules of evidence.

Lavin even confesses to the committeemen that as president of the Illinois State Bar Association he tried to replace the state’s flawed judicial election system with one in which the governor or state supreme court appoints judges based – the theory goes – on their legal reputations.

“When I was bar association president, I tried to get ‘merit selection’ passed,” Lavin tells the committeemen, who frown. “I failed — like all bar presidents have failed.”

Illinois’ party leaders such as Madigan aren’t about to hand their power to choose judges over to the governor.

A question that comes up every two years is whether all these earnest presentations the judicial hopefuls make before this body really matter or have the deals already been cut — the most clouted committeemen already locked in their candidates for the five openings on the appellate court and the 10 on the circuit court.

When the speeches were all given, it turns out there will still be some wiggle room behind the closed doors when the committeemen iron out their slate in executive session. Some will suggest pushing Connors or Lavin aside for Judge William Boyd. But they will get their slating in the end.

In past decades, the committeemen would meet in the cigar-smoke filled rooms of the Bismarck Hotel to craft a “balanced” ticket. In those days, “balance” meant representation from the Irish, Polish, Italian and Jewish communities; candidates from the North, South and West Sides.

In 2011, times have changed. You can’t smoke inside anymore. The committeemen and committeewomen have a different idea of “balance.” The have caucuses of African-Americans, Hispanics and suburbanites and each want representation. And the party always likes to slate at least one openly gay candidate – that’s an important constituency for the party.

And as committeemen get more sensitive about press coverage of their slating, they warn the candidates they better get good ratings for their legal skills from the bar associations. And they also schedule a “pre-slating” meeting to weed out bad apples and embarrassing comments before the press gets there.

Two years ago the slating was held at the old Bismarck, now named the Allegro Hotel. But the Allegro was booked this year so it is being held in the Plumbers’ Hall. This space is roomier and a side-door allows committeemen to literally duck out to a bricked-up “back alley” behind the building to cut deals during slating and get better cell-phone reception.

So is this the best way to pick judges?

Good government groups and law professors wince when told that most candidates include in their speeches to committeemen statements of loyalty to the Democratic Party and histories of service and financial contributions to the party and its candidates.

Seven candidates use the phrase “I am a life-long Democrat.” Others tweak it to say “I am a loyal Democrat” or, as Wright says, “I’m a staunch Democrat with a long record of public service.”

Or as Judge Peter Vilkelis says, “I’m a good judge, I’m a good Democrat. And I promise to make the party proud.”

Is there anything wrong with that? This is not the Chicago Bar Association or the Chicago Council of Lawyers where the candidates focus on their resumes. This is a group of political operatives whose job is to turn out the Democratic vote and they want to hear about candidates’ Democratic credentials.

“I earn my living representing the hard-working men and women of the County, the kind of people that make up the backbone of the Democratic Party,” candidate Kevin Cunningham tells the committeemen. “I’ve been their ears and their advocate and their voice in the courtroom, I think I’d be a great candidate for them and the county as a judge.”

Despite strong support from O’Shea, Cunningham has not lined up the necessary support to get slated.

“As [Cook County Board] President [Toni] Preckwinkle has said at the Democratic dinner honoring Mayor Emanuel, the Democratic Party is the party of inclusion to help the poor and oppressed and that government can’t do everything,” Judge Kevin Horan says to nods from committeemen.

Many of these candidates, such as Horan, already serve as judges by appointment of the state supreme court. For years now, the Supreme Court just “recalled” them every two years to serve by appointment. The high court announced this year it will end the practice. So the committeemen now have a glut of appointed judges asking them for slating — more than they can find seats for. Horan will not be slated.

The committeemen put their hands together and give their heartiest applause of the day to Judge Diann Marsalek, sworn in as an appointed judge just one day earlier.

Marsalek does not need to tell the committeemen how involved she has been in the Democratic Party — they know. That’s why they slated her last time. She is president of the Lakeview Citizens Council. Her father was a judge. Her mother was a longtime secretary in the 44th Ward Regular Democratic Organization. When she sought party slating four years ago, Ald. Dick Mell (33rd) said he used to go fishing with her father the judge.

She has worked as an assistant attorney general and just finished working as legal advisor for Secretary of State Jesse White.

“I have been a lifelong Democrat — I’ve really worked hard for the party over the years, supported a lot of people,” she says. “Four years ago, I was [not slated]. I did not run against any slated candidates, Last time I did run. Unfortunately, I did not win. I really believe in loyalty and being a team member ... I will work really hard for all the slated candidates.”

Candidates are supposed to earn loyalty with committeemen by dropping out of the race if they do not get slated. That way they are not running “against the party.” Sometimes that works and committeemen reward them with slating next time around. Sometimes committeemen just keep telling them every two years to wait their turn.

Election lawyer-turned-Judge Matt Delort strikes some committeemen as a bit too presumptuous in his comments:

“Two years ago, I came before you and requested your endorsement either for a position on the appellate court or the circuit court and you honored me by making me an alternate candidate for the circuit court,” Delort says. That means he was on stand-by in case any extra slots on the court opened up. None did.

“And I’m asking that if you honor your custom and practice, that I will be automatically slated for the circuit court because l kept my word and I did not run against the party two years ago for circuit court,” he says.

Here’s the problem: More candidates are telling committeemen today that the party “owes” them slating than the committeeman have slots to fill.

Some debts they will honor, like the one to Marsalek. Others, like Delort, will be told to try again next time.

Marsalek has enough personal relationships with these committeemen that they can’t say “No,” even though they prefer not to give candidates a second bite at the apple after they run and lose. Marsalek also lost two runs for judge from the 8th subcircuit in the ‘90s. She also lost her then-fiance State Rep. Roger McAuliffe, R-Chicago, in a boating accident 15 years ago.

“She’s a very sympathetic figure, kind of a Susan Lucci figure,” one committeeman says, referring to the Soap Opera star nominated so many times for an Emmy without a win.

The committeemen’s applause for Marsalek is sustained and genuine.

Mary Jane Theis comes before the committeemen seeking their blessing for her bid for state supreme court and not only reminds them she had followed the rules and not run when they told her not to, but she also slams her opponents for running “against the party.”

Like Marsalek, Theis has a long history with the party and a reservoir of good will starting with her father, the late Judge Ken Wendt, asking members of that same 44th Ward Democratic Organization to “take care of” his daughter after he died, which they did.

Decades ago, Theis managed the first campaign for state representative of John Cullerton, who is now president of the state senate. Theis also has the enthusiastic political and financial backing of Mayor Emanuel.

“They chose to run against your candidate and defeat your candidate,” Theis tells the committeemen. She says rival Aurelia Pucinski “…twice defeated your judicial candidates … She ran against your candidate for Cook County Board president as a Republican. I have more respect for the Democratic Party.”

Some candidates with very impressive resumes make great presentations but will not be slated because they have not met with enough committeemen or never had the family ties to give them an edge.

In addition to stressing their Democratic bona fides and legal skills, many candidates argue they can fill a niche on the ticket.

“My name’s Jessica O’Brien — I am the Asian-American with the Irish last name,” says the general counsel for the Illinois Lottery. A novel approach, but it won’t get her slated. The party will take care of Asian voters with Judge Pamela Leeming and Judge Laura Liu, who is slated for a regional subcircuit election on the North lakefront.

O’Brien is followed by Michael Forti, the attorney who represented the city of Chicago in its failed effort to restrict hand gun ownership. These committeemen supported the effort and are impressed by Forti’s resume, his “highly qualified” rating from the Chicago Bar Association, his private sector experience and his ability to fill a niche.

“I’m proud member of the LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender] community,” Forti tells them. “It’s good politics. I present a candidacy which is not either-or -- either qualifications or important LGBT qualities. Instead I present the best of both.”

Forti was not on the slate before the session, but his impressive presentation will win him a spot.

Pamela Leeming, a public defender appointed to the bench, says she is “owed” a spot because she stepped aside last time after not getting slated – and does she have a niche:

“I am the only American judge of Pakistani descent, not only in Cook County, but the entire country,” Leeming says. “I’m an all-American judge and I have voted Democratic ever since I was eligible to vote.”

How can they say ‘No’? Leeming will be slated.

“How bout a round of applause for John Clark from Reggio’s Pizza?” Martwick says to committeemen, prompting cheers and applause. Usually it’s the pizza delivery guy who brings pizza to an event, not the CEO, but this is a meeting of the Cook County Democratic Central Committee.

Well-known criminal defense and trial attorney Ralph Meczyk has argued cases all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court but one old blemish on his resume gives committeemen enough pause to block his slating.

“Pardon my audacity or ‘chutzpah’ some might say but I want to make full disclosure,” he tells committeemen, some of whom stop their chattering to listen. “In 1987, I was convicted of a federal offense: under-reporting my income by $15,000. It was bad accounting. I had just left the public defenders office. In 2000, Bill Clinton gave me a full and complete pardon. My record after that speaks for itself.”

His record since then does speak for itself and he has been found qualified by all the bar groups, but committeemen aren’t quite willing to let 1987 go, even after Meczyk reaches back a generation to apologize for the last Republican vote in his family in 1956 from his holocaust-survivor father:

“In 1956, my father did vote for a Republican, Dwight Eisenhower,” Meczyk says. “He said ‘I have to return a favor. Eisenhower liberated Dachau concentration camp.’”

Now that they have heard from 32 candidates for circuit court and a dozen for the appellate court, the committeemen ask all non-members to leave to room so they can go into executive session and iron out their slate.

Committeemen huddle in their respective caucuses —the Black Caucus, the Latinos, the suburban committeemen, according to some of those present.

John Kirby, a judge from the 11th Ward – home turf of the Daleys, had asked for one of the five appellate court slots. But Daley nephew Patrick Thompson is seeking a seat on the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. The 11th Ward can’t be greedy. Kirby will have to wait.

Hispanic committeemen will claim one of the five appellate seats. Judge Rodolfo “Rudy” Garcia has served on the appellate court for eight years by appointment of the Supreme Court and has asked to be slated based on his experience. But the caucus instead opts for Judge Jesse Reyes, a former president of the Illinois Judges Association who is a much more familiar face at party events. The suburban committeemen like Reyes too.

Nathanial Howse has broad support for one of the five appellate seats and a second African-American, P. Scott Neville, Jr., also has strong support from the Black Caucus. Some want a third African-American, Judge William Boyd.

That would leave one seat for Connors and Lavin. Some committeemen start talking about which one of them should be dropped.

Burke stands and argues that striking Connors from the appellate slate would leave no woman. And voters like women judges. Some African-American women committeemen rise to second Burke on that point. So the committemen agree to drop Boyd. The final appellate slate: Howse, Neville, Reyes, Connors and Lavin.

Howse and Neville were partners in the same South Side law firm before taking the bench. They and Lavin already serve on the appellate court by Supreme Court appointment.

For the 10 circuit court seats, the final slate will be eight lawyers already appointed to the court by the state supreme court: Marsalek; Leeming; trial lawyer Russell Hartigan; attorney Jean Prendergast Rooney, who clerked for Theis and whose uncle, Richard Prendergast, was president of the Chicago Bar Association; reporter-turned-lawyer Alfred Swanson; trial lawyer Stanley Hill; public defender Erica Reddick; and trial lawyer Lorna Propes.

The two other slots will go to Forti and Cynthia Ramirez, an administrative law judge for the Illinois Dept. of Public Health who shouted her entire speech. Defendants in the back of her courtroom will have no problem hearing her.

Every one of those chosen for slating had talked about their lifelong work for or devotion to the party, ringing doorbells or writing checks – except for superstar trial lawyer Lorna Propes, whose husband, Ron Himel, was a judge, and who knows some of the committeemen from her work on the state racing board for the last 18 years. Propes talked about the different kinds of cases she has tried in her 35-year career.

Committeemen have a separate session for the state supreme court seat.

Theis is a lock for state supreme court despite an effort by Preckwinkle to slate Joy Cunningham.

Renegade Democrat Aurelia Pucinski, ostensibly appearing to seek slating for the supreme court spot, instead tells committeemen they should get out of the business of endorsing judges.

“Endorsing judges, especially Supreme Court judges, is just plain bad for the court,” Pucinski tells the dumbstruck committeemen.

State Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) turns his head to look in disbelief at Pucinski. State Rep. Karen Yarbrough raises her eyebrows and Ald. Ed Burke (14th) smiles a wide grin and looks at the floor.

“The endorsement of a political party for any judgeship raises serious questions about the integrity and independence of the judiciary … I ask you as political leaders to stay out of the judicial races,” Pucinski says.

They politely applaud when she finishes.

Ald. Burke, who for decades has been the emcee, the power-behind-the-scenes; the raconteur running the judicial slating, takes a decidedly low-key role this year, letting Martwick and Committeeman Tim Bradford run the show.

“It moved quicker, didn’t it?” Burke says with a smile afterward.

And while in years past, Burke had to grit his teeth and suffer a few poorly-rated candidates pushed by some of the caucuses, he says as he leaves that he is proud of the caliber of this year’s slate.

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