What's the point of voting if the results don't count?
Most people presume that the candidates who come out on the short end on Election Day are out of luck when it comes to landing a spot on the public payroll. Most of the losers are.
But there are locations where that rule doesn't apply, and it probably wouldn't surprise many Illinoisans to know that Cook County is one and that the handful of losers who end up winners have strong political connections to Democratic Party power-brokers.
Where is this special haven where voters' decisions are turned upside down? It's the supposedly nonpolitical branch of government — the judiciary — that's actually hyper-political when it comes to doling out judgeships as the spoils of successful political warfare.
The Chicago Tribune reports that the Illinois Supreme Court recently appointed as judges seven politically connected judicial losers in the November election. The Tribune reports that each of the appointed either were generous donors to the Democratic Party or Democratic Party organization or had powerful political sponsors, including Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and Chicago Alderman Richard Mell.
Actually, it's a tad unfair to blame all seven members of the Supreme Court equally for overturning voters' decisions. The blame lies mostly with the three Cook County jurists on the court — Charles Freeman, Mary Jane Theis and Anne Burke. But since the four non-Cook County justices let the other three get away with it, they all share responsibility.
This is a long-standing problem that has drawn unfavorable attention to the high court in the past. Embarrassed by similar previous stories, current Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride appeared to pledge in 2011 that the court would not engage in similar conduct in the future.
"In short, our court has determined as a matter of administrative policy that non-elected circuit and appellate court judges shall not be considered for recall," Kilbride wrote in 2011.
But Kilbride's statement apparently was an intentional parsing of words designed to give a false impression. Supreme Court spokesman Joseph Tybor said that Kilbride did not mean that losing judicial candidates would not be appointed to fill vacancies, just that the losers would not be brought back under the same provisions as "retired" judges are to fill vacancies — a process known as "recall."
Tybor acknowledged that "the end result may be the same" but insisted "the court did not go back on the policy it had announced last year."
It's hardly reassuring to know that Chief Justice Kilbride plays word games with the public to protect an undemocratic policy of turning election losers into he equivalent of election winners.
The Supreme Court defends this approach by citing the importance of appointing experienced judges to fill vacancies. But that's just subterfuge. Some of the appointees may actually have professional resumes that are as impressive as their political bona fides. But Gregory Ahern Jr., a loser in the March primary and one of the recent appointees supposedly named because of their vaunted experience, has no judicial experience. He's a veteran prosecutor.
With hundreds of judges in the Cook County judicial system, these kind of appointments often get lost in the shuffle. It would be much harder to pull that kind of funny business in smaller downstate counties, like Champaign, Macon or Vermilion.
But the fact that this practice is generally limited to Cook County doesn't make it any easier to swallow. Election day results are supposed to mean something — that, in fact, is the whole idea behind having the voters elect judges.
Conversely, the concept of merit selection of judges — a practice common in many states — also is supposed to mean something. Unfortunately, the Cook County practice of appointing judges based on personal and political loyalties shows that merit selection can be subverted as easily as the result of a judicial election.