Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Lawyer Groups Throw Weight Around In Judge Selection

The major lawyer organizations in Illinois -- and probably in most other states -- are dominated by plaintiffs' lawyers, the personal injury trial lawyers who frequently seem to be more interested in the size of the award than in justice.

So we react with skepticism when lawyer groups object to the appointment of a new judge who doesn't meet their approval.

That happened in Cook County last week when the Illinois Supreme Court selected as a new judge an attorney who has no experience in jury trials.

Furmin Sessoms, the Supreme Court's appointee, has served as a supervisor in the Cook County public defender's office. According to the Chicago Tribune on Sunday (see below), Sessoms has been a contributor to Citizens for Stroger in 2005. That's the campaign organization of former Cook County Board President John Stroger, whose son now occupies the president's chair.

Should his lack of experience with jury trials or his political leanings disqualify him from the bench? Certainly not.

He may be unqualified for lots of other reasons that the Supreme Court didn't know about ... and couldn't learn ... because several of the lawyer groups that opposed him refused to share information with the Supreme Court.

Court officials had asked the alliance of bar associations why they opposed Sessoms and they refused to provide their reasons.

"Your refusal to honor our express request for [information], particularly on the basis cited, [affects] the credibility of the evaluation and, frankly, gives us pause," the justices wrote. "Even more importantly, however, it renders near impossible Mr. Sessoms' ability to mount any credible appeal." (Chicago Tribune)
The Chicago Bar Association supported Sessoms while the Illinois State Bar Association did not.

The process of selecting judges in Illinois is flawed and needs to be reviewed and likely changed.

In fact, this single issue may be the only justification for calling a Constitutional Convention when that question faces Illinois votes in November of 2008.

Election of judges, while popular and specifically selected by Illinois voters following the last Constitutional Convention, is fraught with peril.

In many areas of the state, especially in Cook County, home of half of the judges in Illinois, judicial candidates are slated by the Cook County Democratic Central Committee. They may, or may not, have any qualifications beyond the endorsement of a local ward or township committeeman.

In Southern Illinois, a slightly different but equally as one-sided selection process has been in effect. Many Fifth Appellate District justices have been selected by the combine composed of the Madison and St. Clair Democratic parties, local organized labor, and the plaintiffs lawyers who have thrived in Southern Illinois court rooms.

While that process has been weakening in recent years, the framework for reform is fragile and is being challenged in 2008 by the immediate past president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association who has announced her candidacy against an appellate justice who has the support of all 37 of the Democratic county chairmen and, most likely, many Republicans.

Perhaps more disturbing than the dominant role of political parties in selecting judges is the intimidating influence of the lawyer groups, starting with the Illinois State Bar Association.

ISBA, heavily influenced if not controlled by plaintiffs' attorneys, weighs heavily in the judicial selection and election process. As the major organization representing Illinois attorneys, ISBA should carry weight.

But the state's major lawyer group -- or groups -- should not have final say on who will control one-third of the government structure of Illinois. In fact, with more than 900 elected judges in Illinois, the judiciary is the largest -- by far -- of the three branches of government and it should not be controlled by the lawyers who represent less than one-fourth of one percent of the population of Illinois.

That number is correct. ISBA membership represents less than one-fourth of one per cent of the population of Illinois. ISBA claims membership of "more than 30,000" on its website. The population of Illinois in 2006, according to the Federal Census Bureau, is 12,831,970.

That means that numerically, ISBA members are an insignificant percentage of the citizens of Illinois.

In fact, according to the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, ISBA represents less than half of the attorneys in Illinois. ARDC shows 81,146 registered lawyers in Illinois as of October, 2006.

What it comes down to is this: ISBA has wielded far more influence than the organization deserves and its biases have been obvious.

In 2004, ISBA teamed with strong liberal and trial lawyer interests in an attempt to weaken the campaign of Lloyd Karmeier for the Supreme Court in Southern Illinois.

And in 2006 -- the following campaign cycle -- ISBA made sure it was not embarrassed by its own members in Southern Illinois as it had been in 2004 so it did a double mailing of its candidate evaluation poll to lawyers to assure that Democrat Bruce Stewart received a higher evaluation than did Republic Steven McGlynn in the Fifth District Appellate race. In 2004, Karmeier scored considerably higher than Appellate Justice Gordon Maag.

The ISBA effort in 2006 resulted in a higher vote among ISBA members in the appellate race than had occurred in the 2004 Supreme Court race.

There is no doubt ISBA will be involved in 2008 judicial elections but if they're going to be involved in the vacancy-replacement process, they ought to be willing to tell the Supreme Court the basis for their objections, as in cases such as that described below.

-- Ed Murnane
Illinois Civil Justice League
September 4, 2007


Anonymous,  4:48 PM  

Ed's 1/4th of 1% math is correct -- but then again, the legislature is far fewer people -- only 177 -- should we trust them either?

What's really laughable here is that Ed regularly inflates his own influence by listing the number of employees who work for the members of his organization, even though the only way those emplyees can show that Ed does not speak for them is to quit.

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