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Brown: Democratic judicial endorsements need a little truth in advertising

Updated: September 19, 2013 10:04AM

More than 40 men and women filed one at a time into an Allegro Hotel meeting room last week to make the case why they should be endorsed for election as Cook County judge.

“I’m a Democratic Party team player,” promised Judge Al Swanson, who already is serving on the bench by appointment.

“I’m here because I’m a Democrat, and I’ve supported the Democratic Party since before I could vote,” said Judge Daniel Peters, another appointee.

Judge Daniel Kubasiak traced his Democratic lineage to his start in the budget office of Mayor Richard J. Daley.

William Raines proudly cited his days as a Democratic precinct captain in the late-Jim Kirie’s Leyden Township organization, but said Rep. Lou Lang, the Niles Township committeeman, is “my sponsor” currently.

Patricia O’Brien Sheahan pronounced herself a “loyal Democrat” but needed say no more after clarifying that she is married to T.J. Sheahan, son of the former Cook County sheriff.

This differentiated them from any number of “lifelong” Democrats and “proud and loyal” Democrats and “dyed-in-the-wool” Democrats, most of whom cited their party credentials before mentioning their experience as lawyers or their ratings from the bar groups.

As many times as I’ve witnessed it, there’s just something raw and jarring about the Cook County Democratic Party’s Judicial Selection Committee process, better known in political circles as slating.

For many rookie Democratic committeeman who had never been a part of it, it was, shall we say, eye-opening?

“Eye opening is an understatement,” said one of the newbie’s, 15th Ward committeeman Raymond Lopez, who seemed almost in shock.

“Disappointing,” said Ald. “Proco” Joe Moreno (1st), upset that a candidate deemed highly qualified by the bar groups had been passed over entirely in the political horse trading.

What’s especially strange is that the partisan pandering is expected even though most would tell you the selections have been made in advance.

“By the time they come here, the cake has been sliced,” said one Northwest Side committeeman. Practically proving the point, neither Ald. Ed Burke (14th) nor House Speaker Mike Madigan, the most powerful voices in picking judges, were even in attendance, although their imprint was evident.

Earlier, as candidates for Appellate Court justice were making their cases, one committeeman sidled up to complain: “It’s all pre-determined.”

When I pressed him for the pre-determined picks, he got skittish. But another laid it out.

“Freddrenna Lyle, David Ellis, John Simon,” he predicted and was proven correct soon afterward.

Lyle has been a judge for less than two years, but she is the former 6th Ward alderman and still popular with her City Council colleagues, many of whom are committeemen.

Ellis hasn’t been a judge at all, but for many years he was the chief legal counsel to Speaker Madigan, the state party chairman. In that capacity, Ellis prosecuted Gov. Rod Blagojevich at his impeachment trial. Madigan’s support made Ellis a shoo-in. Ellis also is a very successful writer of mystery and suspense novels, which he said he expects to continue in his spare time.

Although already serving as an appointed justice, Simon was a somewhat less obvious selection, only in that for many years he was a favored recipient of Republican pinstripe patronage legal work. His father, Seymour Simon, was the Democratic state Supreme Court justice who won the everlasting appreciation of the state GOP by siding with Gov. Jim Thompson in his 1982 recount battle with Democrat Adlai Stevenson III.

Slating found Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in the unusual role of party enforcer, asking the candidates if they would promise to support the entire ticket if endorsed, and more important, if they would promise not to run if they didn’t get the party’s nod.

Preckwinkle, who won election herself by opposing the party’s pick, said she was comfortable asking the question “because I think we should know.”

She defended the judicial slating process on the basis that Republican counties slate Republican judges and that Democrats in recent years have picked an increasingly diverse and qualified slate of candidates.

One of the very few refusing to take the pledge not to run if passed over was Brendan O’Brien, a partner at Hinshaw Culbertson, whose father Donald was a Cook County judge.

“I cannot definitively say I will not run. I’ve got to be honest,” said O’Brien, who declined afterward to explain his thinking, although it would seem plain that he figures he can win without the party’s nod.

O’Brien was not among the 10 candidates endorsed. Neither was Peters. Swanson, Kubasiak, Raines and Sheahan did get the party nod.

I’ve always thought we should put it right out there on each judge’s nameplate: Judge Joe Blow, Sponsored by ...


Twitter: @MarkBrownCST

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