Chicago Sun-Times

Up­set over Smol­lett flap, judges refuse usual cam­paign do­na­tion to county Democrats

- MARK BROWN, US Elections · U.S. News · US Politics · Politics · Elections · Democratic Party (United States) · Zoom Video Communications · Jussie Smollett · United States of America · Illinois · Republican Party (United States) · Toni Preckwinkle

Cook County Democrats led by Party Chair Toni Preck­win­kle may have picked a fight for which they hadn’t re­ally bar­gained this week in seek­ing Judge Michael Toomin’s ouster from the bench in a bald po­lit­i­cal power play.

Late Wed­nes­day night, the other Cook County judges seek­ing re­ten­tion on the Novem­ber bal­lot re­fused to fork over their usual $40,000 pay­ment to the party’s get-out-the-vote ef­fort — partly in protest of the Democrats’ de­ci­sion to tar­get Toomin for de­feat.

In essence, they re­fused to kiss the ring.

It was a rare election-year dis­play of po­lit­i­cal in­de­pen­dence for the judges, who saw in the at­tack on Toomin, a re­spected vet­eran ju­rist, a clear threat to their own au­ton­omy.

Whether this turns out to be a re­volt from the Demo­cratic Party it­self or just a re­volt from Preck­win­kle’s lead­er­ship of the party re­mains to be seen.

But the de­ci­sion by the judges to re­ject the tra­di­tional pay­ment, on a 42-13 vote af­ter a spir­ited de­bate, sent a clear mes­sage they don’t want the party us­ing the re­ten­tion process to push them around any­more.

I’m told Toomin did not par­tic­i­pate in the two and a half hour Zoom meeting that pre­ceded the vote.

But he was a main topic of dis­cus­sion be­cause of the Demo­cratic Cen­tral Com­mit­tee’s de­ci­sion to op­pose his re­ten­tion just months af­ter he agreed to name a spe­cial prose­cu­tor to re­open the Jussie Smol­lett in­ves­ti­ga­tion, then named for­mer U.S. At­tor­ney Dan Webb to do the job.

State’s At­tor­ney Kim Foxx is fac­ing re-election in Novem­ber, and top Democrats would have just as soon al­lowed the bun­gled Smol­lett case to re­cede from vot­ers’ mem­o­ries by now.

To cover their tracks, party of­fi­cials tried to make a case that Toomin does a poor job as pre­sid­ing judge of Ju­ve­nile Court, an at­tack that doesn’t hold up to scru­tiny even if he does have some de­trac­tors.

In prac­ti­cal terms, the de­ci­sion by the judges to refuse pay­ment to the party may not mean much. The money was ex­pected to be used, as it usu­ally is, for a pair of mail­ings ask­ing Demo­cratic vot­ers to sup­port the judges for re­ten­tion.

The re­ten­tion judges, who have their own joint cam­paign com­mit­tee, can just as eas­ily use that money to pay for their own mail­ings.

But the risk to the re­ten­tion judges is that they need the sup­port of Demo­cratic vot­ers to keep their seats on the bench, and there­fore it helps to re­ceive back­ing from Demo­cratic lead­ers.

Elected Cir­cuit Court judges in Illi­nois face a re­ten­tion vote ev­ery six years. To stay on the bench, they need a “YES” vote from at least 60% of those vot­ing.

His­tor­i­cally, the Demo­cratic Party has sup­ported all Cook County judges for re­ten­tion, re­gard­less of their bar rat­ings or po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tion. Re­ten­tion judges have come to rely on that sup­port.

That’s not a good sys­tem either. Not ev­ery judge de­serves job pro­tec­tion for life.

With Preck­win­kle’s sup­port, the party de­vi­ated from that prac­tice in 2018 to back a suc­cess­ful cam­paign by ad­vo­cacy groups to dump Judge Matthew Cogh­lan over his prior role as a prose­cu­tor in a wrong­ful con­vic­tion case.

But the trick is how you pick and choose who is tar­geted, and Democrats got it all wrong by pick­ing Toomin as this year’s fall guy.

Toomin, 82, was first elected to the bench in 1984 and has served as pre­sid­ing judge in Ju­ve­nile Court since 2010. In his pre­vi­ous re­ten­tion bids, he has al­ways re­ceived fa­vor­able rat­ings from the bar as­so­ci­a­tions and been sup­ported by the Demo­cratic Party, al­though he was orig­i­nally elected as a Repub­li­can.

Af­ter the judges voted Wed­nes­day, their Com­mit­tee for the Re­ten­tion of Judges in Cook County re­leased a state­ment:

“Our le­gal sys­tem is based on the prin­ci­ple that an in­de­pen­dent, fair and com­pe­tent ju­di­ciary will in­ter­pret and ap­ply the laws that gov­ern us. That is the frame­work by which we con­duct our­selves ev­ery day. Par­tic­i­pat­ing and sup­port­ing a plan that in­cludes op­pos­ing one of our col­leagues, Judge Michael Toomin, who em­bod­ies those prin­ci­ples, is a con­cern and some­thing we as the 2020 re­ten­tion class can­not sup­port.”

A Demo­cratic Party spokesper­son de­clined com­ment.

In the not so dis­tant past, it would have been un­think­able for Cook County’s judges to shrug off the Demo­cratic Party’s con­trol, even sym­bol­i­cally.

Here’s hop­ing that in the not so dis­tant fu­ture, they find a way to take it a step fur­ther.

 ??  ?? Toni Preck­win­kle
Toni Preck­win­kle
 ??  ?? Judge Michael Toomin
Judge Michael Toomin
 ??  ??

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