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House Speaker's list highlights politics in merit selection

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The Judicial Update

April 19, 2011

Illinois: In an article in Sunday's Chicago Tribune, the newspaper described the side of merit selection in Cook County that doesn't make it into textbooks. Highlighted were the letters and recommendations from a number of politicians to the circuit judges of the Cook Judicial Circuit Court, who appoint their circuit's associate judges. The most coveted recommendation, apparently, comes from Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, Michael Madigan. In the last eight years, the Speaker has annually sent what is now referred to as "Madigan's list" to the Circuit Court judges in Cook County.[1] [2]

Spotlighted in the article are a number of individuals that have or have not made the list when applying for associate judge positions in the county. One of the most telling exchanges comes from a lawyer who never made the list. When visiting judges after applying to the vacancies, they would ask, "Are you on Madigan's list?" When the applicant said no, the reply was, "Oh, you should be on the list."[2]

Though Madigan's suggestions are important, they are not paramount. Out of 37 lawyers recommended in eight years, only 25 were chosen for the court. In that same period of time, 82 total vacancies were filled. In a response to the story, Madigan said, "...I believe I am an experienced evaluator of those who seek to serve in the judiciary" and that the recommendations are free from political influence.[2]

At a time when the method of merit selection is being lauded and attacked in different states, situations like these provide an interesting glimpse into potential ramifications of a such a system.