Judge Liam Brennan, who normally sits in Will county, presided over the misdemeanor battery trial of Judge Cynthia Brim. Judge Brim offered the defense that she was legally insane at the time of the incident at the Daley Center courthouse which lead to her arrest, suspension from the bench and trial. On February 4, 2013 Judge Brim’s defense was accepted and she was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Judge Brim’s trial highlights problems with our judicial retention process that are unconnected with her arrest, trial and acquittal. The Chicago Tribune in October 2012 rounded up many comments about Judge Brim’s judicial performance in advocating that she not be retained to the bench. Although the editorial focused on her arrest, the editorial notes that Judge Brim did not have the confidence of local bar associations well prior to her arrest. Even had Judge Brim never been arrested, she would not have been recommended for retention by most groups that offer judicial evaluations prior to the general election. As the Tribune noted in 2000, Judge Brim is “faulted for inconsistent rulings, hostility toward litigants and attorneys and inadequate knowledge of the law. She was elected to the bench in 1994 with a modest amount of experience; six years later, her shortcomings still overwhelm her talents.”
Judge Brim was elected in 1994 and initially sat in the Domestic Relations Division. She was transferred to the 1st District Municipal in September 1996 and to the 6th District Municipal Court in December 1996. In 1998, she was transferred to the 5th District Municipal Court in Bridgeview, where she has remained. Like all Circuit Court judges, Judge Brim has run for retention every six years; she was retained in 2000, 2006, and 2012.
Judge Brim was clearly exhibiting issues of poor performance: tardiness, inappropriate temper and courtroom mismanagement long before the incident which lead to her arrest.
Judicial retention candidates are evaluated by various bar groups who issue voter recommendations. In 2012, Judge Brim was not recommended for retention by 10 of the 11 bar groups in the Alliance of Bar Associations for Judicial Screening. She was also found unqualified for retention by the Chicago Bar Association.
Although most bar associations do not do so, the Chicago Council of Lawyers releases a brief statement in support of their recommendation that a judge be retained or not retained.
The CCL did not recommend Judge Brim for retention in 2000, 2006 and 2012. In 2000, the CCL wrote “many lawyers question whether Judge Brim has adequate legal ability or temperament to be a judge. She is professional and dedicated, but reportedly lacks a good grasp of the law and treats litigants harshly.” In 2006, the CCL wrote “[m]any lawyers report that Judge Brim demonstrates a lack of punctuality, and there were reports that lawyers will ask for a substitution of judge when assigned to her courtroom.” In 2012, the evaluation noted “[m]ost respondents indicated a lack of confidence in her legal abilities. Even though the judge hears generally non-complex matters, her rulings are often described as unpredictable and delayed. Respondents indicate that they regularly file motions for substitution of judge, despite the cost and inconvenience to their clients.”
Likewise, the Judicial Performance Commission of Cook County, which has been in operation since 2010, releases a 1-2 page evaluation of each judicial retention candidate (.pdf), but the JPC does not offer a recommendation with regard to retention. You can read the JPC evaluation of Judge Brim here (.pdf). In 2012, the JPC found that Judge Brim had “significant difficulties in the areas of legal ability, diligence and temperament that seriously impede her effectiveness as a jurist.” The JPC recommended she undergo court-watching, peer mentoring, anger management courses and continuing education on courtroom management. It recommended she be re-evaluated at the mid-term.
This incident should serve as a clarion call that voters are insufficiently informed prior to judicial retention elections and insufficiently engaged in the political process where judicial retention is concerned. Judge Brim held onto her judicial seat with the support of only 26% of the eligible voters in the City of Chicago (see note below). Such a low display of voter confidence, coupled with a near-unanimous disapproval of evaluating organizations, should not result in the retention of an unqualified judge.
Note about Judge Brim’s election totals:
A judge need receive only 60% yes votes of all votes cast on their line on the ballot to retain her seat. Judge Brim received 371,929 yes votes in the City of Chicago, a 67.04 % rate sufficient to retain her seat. However, 967,402 total ballots were cast in the City of Chicago. Fewer than 40% of ballots cast included a vote for or against Judge Brim. With a mere 67% of those ballots, a clearly unqualified Judge was able to remain on the bench.