A strikingly high number of voters helped take out judge Matthew Coghlan. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

Why Chicagoans Just Fired a Judge For the First Time in 28 Years

Taking a cue from progressive lawyers and racial justice activists, Chicago voters ousted longtime judge Matthew Coghlan.

BY Rick Tulsky

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“We hope it sends a message to people on the bench that the harshness of sentences, and racial disparities and previous activity will be scrutinized.”

Cook County voters broke with tradition on Tuesday when they decisively voted to deny former prosecutor Matthew Coghlan another six-year term on the Circuit Court bench.

Coghlan became the first Cook County judge to lose a retention election in 28 years, in a race marked by strikingly high numbers of electors who cast votes in the race.

Electors in the 13th subcircuit covering the northwest suburbs, meanwhile, voted onto the bench Shannon P. O’Malley, who had changed both his name and his party as he ran as a Democrat in one of the few contested races Tuesday to fill an open seat. O’Malley, a Hoffman Estate defense attorney, had run unsuccessfully as a Republican eight years earlier in Will County under the name Philip Spiwak.

O’Malley had failed to take part in bar association evaluations, and as a result was given negative ratings by the various bar groups.

In highly-Democratic Cook County, most open seats are decided at the March primary, as Republicans do not even challenge Democrats for countywide seats or seats within the Chicago subcircuits. O’Malley was one of a handful of candidates facing contests for subcircuits in the suburbs.

After winning partisan races, Illinois judges stand for retention in nonpartisan races in which they must win 60 percent favorable vote. That level had in recent years been virtually assured; until this week, no judge had lost a retention race since 1990.

A judge since 2000, Coghlan was receiving the support of about 52.5 percent of Cook County voters, with more than 95 percent of the vote recorded.

The retention election occurred amidst the backdrop of community mistrust in impoverished neighborhoods in the justice system. Activists and community groups appeared to have successfully harnessed that dissatisfaction Tuesday; a far greater percentage of voters cast votes in the judicial races than in past years.

In the four elections between 2010 and 2016, Cook County election board results show, no judge running for retention gathered as many as 70 percent of the votes cast for the contest at the top of the ballot, and some judges received as few as 60 percent. With returns almost complete for 2018, more than 77 percent of those who cast a vote in the gubernatorial race voted in at least one of the 59 retention races at the bottom of the ballot.

“We have started something,” said Malcolm Rich, executive director of the Chicago Council of Lawyers. “We have energized and ignited the passion of voters in judicial races. Now it becomes even more important that the bar associations do the job [of evaluating judges] right and timely.”

The Council of Lawyers was the only one of the three major bar associations that did not recommend Coghlan.

A group of progressive lawyers built a campaign around defeating Coghlan, a former assistant state’s attorney who is being sued by two exonerees who contend he took part in building a false case against them.

Attorney Brendan Shiller, who helped lead the effort to defeat Coghlan, said he considered unseating one judge as a step to creating more voter attention in future elections.

The county Democratic chair, Toni Preckwinkle, said in an interview that the party intends to stay involved and scrutinize the records of judges seeking to hold their spots on the bench.

Community distrust in the criminal justice system became more evident after the city was forced three years ago to release the video of Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting to death Laquan McDonald, an African American teenager, a shooting about which police had initially provided false narratives that McDonald had lunged at the officer.

Angry protests followed, and a task force formed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel as well as a separate report by the U.S. Justice Department documented community mistrust fueled by years of excessive force by police and lax discipline for errant officers.

In 2016 Democratic primary voters, encouraged by a coalition of community groups, defeated then-State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, who had taken no action against Van Dyke until after the video was belatedly released.

Following that effort, community groups and progressive forces this year sought to stir interest in the judicial races as a way to energize young voters and minority voters to cast ballots.

Following the coalition’s efforts, the Cook County Democratic party, which has traditionally urged ‘yes’ votes on all retention candidates, voted last month not to support Coghlan. The party chairwoman, Preckwinkle, created a video urging voters to vote against Coghlan.

The party made that decision despite the urging of the retention judges, who had sought to support each other.

Preckwinkle, in an interview Tuesday night, said, of Coghlan’s defeat, “We hope it sends a message to people on the bench that the harshness of sentences, and racial disparities and previous activity will be scrutinized” as the party decides in the future whom to support.

Attorney Shiller, who helped coordinate the movement against Coghlan, said of Coghlan’s defeat, “I think what we’ve seen is that a group of young activists sought change in the criminal justice system, and the Democratic party recognized the importance of the issue.” Shiller called the result “just the start” of heightened scrutiny to judicial races.

Coghlan was not the only candidate to be targeted by some community groups. Some judges’ past controversies were reported in news accounts, including Injustice Watch and the Chicago Sun-Times. Local bar associations negatively recommended a handful of candidates. The Chicago Tribune editorialized against Coghlan and two other judges. And the organization ChicagoVotes published a guide highlighting a handful of judges.

Judge Maura Slattery Boyle was nearly also, like Coghlan, rejected by voters. Slattery Boyle had received less than 63 percent favorable votes, a number lower than any judge seeking retention since at least 2010.

(Elena Sucharetza and Emily Hoerner of Injustice Watch contributed to this report.)

Reprinted with permission from Injustice Watch. 

Rick Tulsky developed a sense of the power of exposing social wrongs as a young reporter at the Jackson, Ms., Clarion Ledger; and has retained his dedication to that work at The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, the San Jose Mercury News and the Center for Investigative Reporting. His work has received more than two dozen national awards including a Pulitzer Prize, and has been a nominated finalist in two other years. Rick is a lawyer, and has been both a Nieman fellowship at Harvard University and an Alicia Patterson fellow. He is the former president and longtime board member of the national organization Investigative Reporters and Editor. Rick is the co-director of Medill Watchdog, a program at Northwestern University’s journalism school to undertake collaborative projects on systemic problems while mentoring students in such work.

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