Why Judges Are Important & How They Impact our Lives
The Illinois state government is divided into three branches: the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch.
The judicial branch plays a critical role in limiting the power and influence of the other two branches. The Illinois Supreme Court has the power to review the constitutionality of laws created by the Illinois General Assembly, and in the case that the Illinois Governor is impeached, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over the trial.
All judges also play a key role in the implementation and enforcement of legislation created by the state. They typically have the ability to decide which cases to hear, set bail amounts (and decide if someone is eligible for bail), and determine sentencing length. Judges can also make decisions on whether or not to defer people to mental health and drug addiction resources instead of sending them to prison. The amount of discretion that judges possess makes them instrumental in the fight for criminal justice reform across the country. As of January 2019, there were 40,000 incarcerated community members in our state prison system, which was only built for only 32,000 people.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a reduction of those numbers, judges have historically contributed to the problem of prison overcrowding and excessive sentencing lengths. Using your vote can help ensure that those problems do not persist in a post-pandemic world.
Beyond the role of the Court in furthering state affairs, the Illinois judicial branch has a significant impact on our everyday lives.
The Cook County Circuit Court handles nearly all of the legal cases in Chicago, from tickets and fines to more serious cases. They are most likely the elected officials you interact with the most, and with 400 judges serving 5.2 million Cook County residents and handling over 1 million cases each year, it is crucial that you use your vote so that you have a say in who becomes a Circuit Court judge.
The Illinois Appellate Court typically handles appeals on cases already decided by the lower courts (e.g. the Cook County Circuit Court), and as a result they hear fewer cases per year (they reviewed a bit over 3,000 criminal and civil cases in 2018) than their circuit court counterparts, but the cases they do hear hold a lot of significance.
Appeals are filed when a defendant believes a significant judicial error occurred during their trial which ultimately impacted its outcome. The appellate court that receives the appeal ultimately decides whether or not the appellant (the defendant who filed the appeal) deserves a retrial. This is important because appeals are usually the only option for individuals who believe their trial was mishandled or that they lacked adequate legal representation. It is potentially all that stands between them and the Illinois correctional system.
Quick Questions with Chicago Votes
- What Happens When a Judge Isn’t Retained?
A judge has to receive 60% of the votes to retain their position. In the event they do not reach that threshold, they lose their seat and are no longer a judge. The Illinois General Assembly is then tasked with appointing a judge to fill that vacancy (another reason to vote for your state legislators).
If a judge is appointed to the vacant position 60+ days before the Illinois primary elections, that judge serves until the upcoming election decides their successor. If a judge is appointed less than 60 days before the primary election, the judge serves a full term, and leaves office at the following general election.
- What qualifications do you need to have to run for a judicial position?
To run for a judicial position, one must be 18 years of age or older, a U.S. citizen, an attorney in the state, and the resident in the district they plan to represent.
- Where can I go to do additional research on judicial candidates?
There are several places you can go to do additional research. We recommend websites like Voteforjudges.org, which aggregates judicial ratings from several Bar associations in Chicago and news media outlets. Injusticewatch.org is also another great resource for you to review judicial candidates based on your subcircuit.