Proposals to Reform the Judicial Retention Process

Two bills recently introduced into the Illinois state legislature have caught our attention.

Illinois State Capitol, Photo by Daniel Schwen

Photo by Daniel Schwen

Representative Kelly Cassidy has sponsored HJRCA0010, a proposal to amend the Illinois constitution and create a judicial performance commission for the evaluation of judicial retention candidates. Rep. Cassidy’s bill proposes a change to the retention system. Under the amendment, judges deemed qualified for retention by the independent judicial performance commission retain their position and those who are not found qualified for retention may choose to run for retention in the general election.

Senator Bill Cunningham has likewise sponsored SJRCA0007, a proposal to amend the Illinois constitution and change the eligibility requirements for election or appointment as a judge or associate Judge in a county with a population of 3,000,000 or more, including certification of qualification by the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission of the Supreme Court of Illinois.

The performance commission model is not novel, but rather has been in use in over a dozen states for over twenty years. Performance commissions typically are composed of attorney and non-attorney members and convene for the purposes of objective research into the performance of sitting judges, as measured by formal professional standards of care. The most well-known performance commission sits in Colorado. Created by statute in 1988, the Colorado Commission on Judicial Performance has evaluated over 1100 judges (.pdf) for purposes of voter education in retention election and for purposes of self-improvement within the judiciary.

For the last three years, Chicago Appleseed has managed a pilot project of the Judicial Performance Commission of Cook County. Based in part upon the Colorado model and in part upon the American Bar Association model standards for judicial evaluation (.pdf), the Cook County JPC evaluated the retention candidates in 2010 and 2012 and has begun the mid-term evaluation process for judges in need of improvement as identified by the project in 2010. The Cook County JPC conducted over 2500 interviews and surveys in 2010 for 73 judges and found 22 judges in need of performance improvement; in 2012, we completed over 2000 interviews for 61 judges and found 14 judges in need of a performance improvement plan and identified 3 judges who could serve as mentors to new judges. The Cook County JPC provides judicial evaluation data to the bar associations that seek to education the voting public about retention candidates, as well as to the media and the public generally.


Chicago Appleseed uses appearance data from the Clerk of the Court to identify attorneys with recent experience before the retention candidates and invites them to complete an anonymous electronic survey asking specific questions with the areas of Legal Ability & Knowledge; Courtroom Management; Diligence; Temperament; and Fairness, Independence and Bias. Additionally, researchers for the JPC, conduct confidential interviews with attorneys and selected presiding judges, as well perform general investigative research into the performance of the judicial retention candidates.


The Cook County JPC receives reports of Chicago Appleseed’s research into the judicial retention candidates and issues a 1-2 page evaluation for each judge, which lists strengths and weakness and includes recommendations for performance improvement measures. Members of the Cook County JPC include practicing attorneys, retired attorneys, social scientists, civil servants, and other nonlaw professionals. The body represents a diversity of personal and professional backgrounds.


The overall goal of the Cook County JPC is to use judicial evaluations as a means to improve the quality of the Cook County judiciary by collecting and analyzing data relating to the performance of Cook County judges; praising good judges and suggesting improvements for others; and providing these data to the judiciary and to the public.


Chicago Appleseed is considering the merits of each of these bills, utilizing our first-hand observation of the quality of information about judicial performance that a properly managed and effective judicial performance commission can garner.


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