“This page didn’t support Freeman’s bid for retention in 2000, despite his intellect and enthusiasm for the job, because of his track record of backing political cronies for the bench. Some were merely incompetent. Two drew the attention of federal investigators, who questioned whether money and political connections helped them secure appointments. Freeman wasn’t accused of wrongdoing. But one of his nominees went to prison.
We thought Freeman had seen the light, and we endorsed him for retention in 2010. A year later, he tapped a former law clerk, Cynthia Cobbs, for a vacancy on the Cook County bench — even though she lived in Will County.”
For the second time in two years, the Illinois Supreme Court has filled an opening on the Cook County circuit bench with one of Justice Charles Freeman’s former law clerks.
Jean Cocozza, tapped by Freeman and appointed by the full court in January, became a full Circuit Court judge — with a $59,000 bump in pay — despite having no experience as a courtroom attorney. She replaced a judge who’d been elected to the appellate court after serving a decade on the circuit bench.
Cocozza wasn’t evaluated by the bar associations that scrupulously review judicial candidates before they appear on a ballot.
She wasn’t screened by a committee, as are most other judges the Supreme Court considers for vacancies. Unlike most of his colleagues, Freeman doesn’t have such a committee. It was his turn to pick.
Candidates to fill midterm Circuit Court vacancies are nominated by the Supreme Court justice representing that circuit and appointed by the full court. Cook County is represented by three justices who take turns making the recommendations.
Cocozza could turn out to be a fine judge. By all accounts, she has served capably as Freeman’s senior law clerk, drafting thousands of opinions and orders while supervising a staff. But her qualifications probably wouldn’t have impressed the bar associations that screen hundreds of judicial candidates seeking election or retention.
More than 200 attorneys have applied for a handful of current openings for associate judges in Cook County. It’s fair to ask how Cocozza’s resume would stack up against theirs.
We’re not nitpicking here. Almost one in three judges currently on the Cook County bench began their judicial career by appointment.
Appointed judges have a leg up on challengers in the subsequent election — and if they win, they’re generally safe for life. Sitting judges are required to stand for retention every six years under a confusing system that protects demonstrably bad judges. Voters haven’t thrown one out in more than 20 years.
The public deserves assurances that when openings occur, they will be filled by the best and brightest legal minds available. That means casting a wide net and vetting the candidates rigorously. Freeman has a history of doing neither.
This page didn’t support Freeman’s bid for retention in 2000, despite his intellect and enthusiasm for the job, because of his track record of backing political cronies for the bench. Some were merely incompetent. Two drew the attention of federal investigators, who questioned whether money and political connections helped them secure appointments. Freeman wasn’t accused of wrongdoing. But one of his nominees went to prison.
We thought Freeman had seen the light, and we endorsed him for retention in 2010. A year later, he tapped a former law clerk, Cynthia Cobbs, for a vacancy on the Cook County bench — even though she lived in Will County.
Legal experts argued over whether the appointment met the constitution’s residency requirement, a debate Cobbs quieted by moving to Cook County. To us, the issue is that Freeman chose a former law clerk from another circuit when there undoubtedly were hundreds of qualified candidates in Cook County. Judges should be chosen based on merit, not political ties.
Justice Mary Jane Theis, elected in November to a full 10-year term, announced last month that she had named a 14-member committee, headed by a former federal judge and a former appellate justice, to help her choose nominees. Justice Anne Burke, who also represents Cook County, has a committee, too. Good for them. It shows they understand the importance of a fair, thorough and transparent selection process.
Why, then, do they not insist that the same standard should apply to all vacancies?
Some justices have an open application process when vacancies occur in their district. Some have their own screening committees. Most consider the bar association evaluations as part of the selection process. A Supreme Court spokesman said Freeman takes those reviews into account “except in rare cases where the talents and abilities of the person are well-known to him and the court.”
The court should establish a single process for screening and filling judicial vacancies. It’s not enough for justices to say, “I do it right when it’s my turn,” then sign off on someone else’s poorly vetted pick.
The Cook County circuit bench is freighted with too many unqualified judges, clouted into the courtroom for all the wrong reasons and protected by the politicians who helped put them there. The Supreme Court should lead by example, filling every vacancy with a certifiably top-shelf jurist — not stacking the bench with its own cronies.