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A secret vote will choose Cook County’s next judicial chief. A $270 million budget, thousands of employees, and the future of a huge court system are at stake.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019
Chicago Tribune
by Juan Perez Jr.

 

A secret vote will choose Cook County’s next judicial chief. A $270 million budget, thousands of employees, and the future of a huge court system are at stake.

Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans on Oct. 4, 2017. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)

More than 250 Cook County judges can elect the next head of the area’s enormous court system Thursday, in a secretive process that will determine if Chief Judge Timothy Evans seizes a seventh three-year term atop a critical layer of local government.

Evans is a fixture in Chicago politics and the first African American to serve as the county’s chief judge. But after a series of controversies, he’s set to face his latest challenger for a post that this year presided over some 2,900 employees and a $272 million budget.

Judge Lorna Propes has announced a bid to oust Evans, and both candidates promoted stylized YouTube pitches to help lobby for their colleagues’ vote while supporters blasted judges this week with last-minute campaign emails.

 

Substantial power is at stake. The chief judge oversees one of the world’s largest court systems, its courtroom language interpreters and drug court, the probation and public guardian systems, plus the county juvenile detention center. More than 1 million cases are filed each year in the Circuit Court system, which covers Chicago and the surrounding Cook County suburbs.

Thursday’s election also will determine if Evans maintains a role in controversial county bond system reforms that mark a recurring flashpoint between county board President Toni Preckwinkle and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

 

His roles in other courthouse flaps also have also come under scrutiny, including a scandal in which one of Evans’ former law clerks was accused of donning a judge’s robe and hearing at least three traffic court cases at the suburban Markham courthouse. Evans later fired the clerk.

“I hope that you will agree that over the years, working together with a commitment to fairness and integrity, we have brought reforms to our court which are both innovative and compassionate,” Evans said in a video message to colleagues. “And equally importantly, embraced changes which continue to produce justice for those who appear before us.”

Propes, meanwhile, has targeted Evans’ long tenure atop the court system with a platform that includes calls to implement term limits on the chief judge’s office. Propes was appointed to the county’s 7th Judicial Subcircuit by the Illinois Supreme Court in 2010, and is now a trial judge in a circuit court division that rules on high-dollar civil lawsuits.

Evans was first elected to the chief judgeship in 2001, and held off former Ald. Tom Allen in 2016 to secure his most recent term on a 129 to 103 vote marked by widespread discontent with his leadership.

“Virtually every issue that we’ve been discussing — from problems in court administration to defending judicial independence — is the result of complacency and bureaucratic inertia,” Propes said in one of her campaign messages. “That sets in when an administration stays too long. And the overwhelming consensus is that 18 years is too long.”

Evans is a former Chicago alderman who was elected to the City Council in 1973 and held the post until Preckwinkle narrowly defeated him in 1991.

He served as floor leader for Mayor Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor. After Washington died in 1987, Evans made his first bid for mayor when the council voted on his replacement, only to lose to Eugene Sawyer.

Evans followed that with another bid for mayor but lost to Richard M. Daley. Then, after losing his council seat, Evans ran for Circuit Court judge in 1992 and won. Nine years later, he ascended to chief judge when he defeated four challengers.

He’s since presided over a sharp population drop at Cook County Jail after requiring judges to set affordable bail amounts for defendants charged with nonviolent felonies. He’s joined forces with Preckwinkle in an ongoing debate over bond reform’s connections to gun violence, and recently commissioned a study showing that felony defendants released on bail rarely picked up a new charge of violence.

In 2013, the Tribune reported the court system’s Adult Probation Department had lost track of hundreds of convicts, and overlooked curfew violations and new crimes by offenders, some of whom went on to commit other crimes. The Cook County state’s attorney’s office settled two federal civil rights lawsuits that alleged a rogue adult probation unit improperly teamed up with Chicago police and the FBI to conduct illegal searches of homes.

 

In 2014, the Illinois Supreme Court released an unprecedented and critical report into how the court system under Evans handled criminal defendants. The report pointed out a lack of leadership and basic understanding of certain court services that led to people unnecessarily awaiting trial behind bars.

And in 2016, then-Circuit Judge Valarie Turner gave Rhonda Crawford her robe to wear. Crawford, who was on the verge of being elected to a courtroom, ruled on three traffic cases from the bench in the Markham courthouse. Evans, whose office had hired Crawford as a law clerk/staff attorney, responded to the embarrassing episode by firing her from her $57,000-a-year job. Crawford was found dead of an apparent suicide in 2018, days before she was to go on trial on misconduct and false impersonation charges.

The county’s 254 circuit judges are eligible to cloister inside the Richard J. Daley Center on Thursday afternoon and cast secret ballots for their chosen candidate.

Once the doors close, chief judge hopefuls formally declare their candidacy for the ballot and have an opportunity to restate their campaign pitch. The voters write their choices onto paper ballots, which are then counted by a committee of judges while a designated observer for each candidate watches. Only judges are allowed in the room.

Chicago Tribune’s Todd Lighty contributed

 

 



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