Editorial | An unfair advantage

Editorial | An unfair advantage

Judges who are stepping aside should time their exits in a manner where voters fill positions.

Judges in Illinois — trial, appellate and Supreme Court — are supposed to be elected, initially in partisan races and subsequently in retention contests where voters choose whether to keep them or put them out to pasture.

But, too often, these important positions are filled by appointment, and that's what has happened again on the Illinois Supreme Court.

The high court announced last week that longtime Justice Charles Freeman has submitted his resignation, effective June 14. After a long and successful career on the bench, the 84-year-old is retiring.

At the same time, the court announced that appellate court Justice P. Scott Neville Jr. will take Freeman's place. Years ago, Freeman appointed Neville to a circuit judgeship. Now he's putting Neville on the Supreme Court.

By all appearances, Neville appears more than qualified to fill this position. But there's a problem anyway — it's an appointment process by which sitting judges name their successors, giving them a tremendous advantage if they choose to run.

It would be no great surprise if Neville runs, and it would be surprising if he faces a serious challenge in the March 2020 Democratic Party primary in Cook County, the district where Neville is seated. But it'll be his race to lose.

Including Neville, a majority of the seven-member court has been appointed — the other three being justices Rita Garman, Mary Jane Theis and Anne Burke.

Each was elected by the voters after being appointed, but their elevation to the court gave them an advantage denied other candidates.

The numbers clearly show an unfortunate trend — sitting justices anointing successors rather than voters electing them.

On the scale of political travesties in Illinois, this insider game hardly ranks at the top. After all, Illinois is a deeply troubled state that has been rendered a national joke by its legislative and executive branch machinations.

But it's disappointing to see the one branch of government that holds itself out, somewhat disingenuously, as nonpolitical embracing the purely political practice of engaging in an end-around of the Illinois Constitution.

If Freeman had chosen, he could have timed his departure in a manner consistent with filling his position by election. After all, there was a primary in March and there's a general election in November in which would-be successors could have competed, had Freeman chosen not to manipulate the timing of the process to his and Neville's advantage.

But he did, and that is that. There's not much the people of Illinois can do it about it because the justices have so much discretion.

That's one of the problems with the judiciary — the only restraint that can be put on judges is that which they choose to put — or not put — on themselves.

Years ago, members of the court were more concerned about appearances — they required appointees to pledge they would not run for the seat to which they were named. But that custom has changed as the justices have discovered the anti-democratic thrill of being a king- or queen- maker.

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