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Op-Ed: Illinois needs good judges for civil justice reform


Thursday, July 30, 2020  |  Commentary  |  by Evelyn Sanguinetti

Candidates--Judicial (27b)

Some off the most important and overlooked races on the ballot this November are judicial races. As citizens, we have a responsibility to choose qualified judges for our appellate courts and circuit courts throughout the state. The problem as I see it is the method in which judges are chosen for the bench.

As a practicing attorney and former lieutenant governor of the state of Illinois, I have practiced law throughout the state and have worked alongside the legislative and judicial branches to manage our state affairs for the people of Illinois. Being a part of the executive branch allowed me to view our government and civil justice system through a unique lens. While an overwhelming majority of judges are independent-minded and qualified, it was clear to me then and it’s clear to me now that Illinois courts need to be less political. It should not matter which judge you draw when a case is filed. We need to establish a new way of selecting judges in Illinois.

One such method is to have an independent, merit-based judicial selection commission on the state level and circuit/county level. This should be free of any partisan tilt or agenda and made up of practicing lawyers and judges (current and retired).

If it is done properly, we can eliminate the money that currently floods into our judicial races and the slew of wealthy candidates that seek to buy their way on the bench. According to a recent study of the American Judicature Society (an independent, non-partisan organization), 37 states and the District of Columbia currently have some form of a merit-based judicial selection commission. Of course, Illinois does not.

It’s time for the Illinois legislature to consider a constitutional amendment to be placed on the ballot or other methods within its power to take partisanship out of judicial races.

As we gear up for a bitter partisan election this November, it is unfortunate that judges will have to stoop to the same level as other candidates on the ballot. Our judges need to be seen as being above the fray, and the current system lends itself to cynicism in the judiciary. A courtroom is only as good as the judge who presides over it, so it’s crucial that whoever is granted the privilege of sitting at the bench is worthy of it.

As for what makes for a worthy judge, it ultimately comes down to fairness. After all, it’s the foundation of our civil justice system. A good judge upholds the law fairly and impartially, regardless of personal opinion, political party or religion. They respect the law as it’s written and stay within the limits of their own authority.

In order to ensure our state is headed down the path toward a fair and balanced civil justice system, it’s vital that our courts are home to judges who will uphold the qualities of a good judge. By securing good people in positions of judicial power through an independent, merit-based system, we can reform our courts for the better. Until such a system is in place, do your homework and vote for the most qualified candidate.

Evelyn Sanguinetti of Wheaton is the former lieutenant governor of the state of Illinois