Chicago activists are trying to pull off a feat that has been unthinkable for the last two decades: getting a sitting criminal court judge removed from the bench in his re-election campaign.
Judges in Cook County, which encompasses Chicago and the surrounding area, have to run for a retention election every six years. They face no challengers, only a yes-or-no vote to keep them on the bench. None of the dozens of judges on the bench have lost such an election since 1990. But this year, a coalition of activists and attorneys has banded together in a campaign to unseat Cook County Circuit Judge Matthew Coghlan on Election Day.
They hope to send a strong message to other judges with harsh sentencing records that they will be held accountable.
“The first line of defense that most citizens don’t even pay attention to is that you get to vote these people on and off [the bench],” said Angela Lockett, staff attorney with First Defense Legal Aid. But judges often have a bigger impact on people’s lives than the statewide and federal candidates who get more attention. “You’re [more likely] to have an interaction with them long before you see Trump,” she noted. “We wanted people to start paying attention.”
The Judicial Accountability Political Action Committee formed by the coalition targeted Coghlan out of the 61 judges running for retention in Illinois based on two factors. The first was based on an analysis of judges’ sentencing records to determine who had the harshest patterns. The committee also looked at which judges were most likely to have decisions reversed by appellate courts. When it ran the numbers, Coghlan’s name was on every list, civil rights attorney Jeanette S. Samuels said.
The committee chose Coghlan, who was first elected in 2000, because he also has a controversial record as a prosecutor. Armando Serrano and Jose Montanez, two men who were recently exonerated after spending 23 years in prison, accused Coghlan of participating in a meeting to frame them for murder, along with a detective who was linked to many wrongful convictions. Coghlan has denied the allegations. In another instance, Coghlan denied a hearing for Antonio Nicholas, who said that police detectives working under former Commander Jon Burge tortured him into a false murder confession. The Illinois appellate court reversed Coghlan, saying Nicholas had shown sufficient evidence to merit a hearing on his confession and conviction. Coghlan still refused, leading the court to appoint another judge to the case.
Activists say that compared with his harsh treatment of most defendants, Coghlan gives police officers far more lenient sentences. They point to a case in which he gave Chicago police officer Richard Bolling three years in prison after Bolling struck and killed a 13-year-old boy while driving drunk.
“We can’t trust that he will be fair and impartial,” Lockett said of Coghlan. “We have to send a message that you cannot still be on the bench and be put in this position of power and favor and conduct yourself like that.” Coghlan “stood out as one of those individuals who epitomizes what’s wrong with our legal system,” Samuels said.
To get the word out, the groups have held voter education events at churches, community organizations, and college campuses; handed out literature and canvassed on the street; and set up phone banks. “It’s not just the judges who don’t expect it to change, the public doesn’t expect it to change,” said Maria Hernandez, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Chicago.
The campaign is about more than Coghlan’s record. It is also intended to educate people about the power they hold in an often confusing and opaque system. “It’s also an effort to inform people about what a retention election means, the way the judiciary is set up in Cook County,” Samuels said.
The Cook County Circuit Court is one of the largest unified court systems in the world, with more than 400 judges handling 2.4 million cases a year. Yet the retention elections typically don’t attract many voters. In the last retention election in 2016, every judge won with less than 600,000 yes votes, even though more than 1 million residents cast votes in the presidential election on the same ballot. “At its core, this is a campaign that is just trying to get the conversation started about how important these judges are,” said Dan Schneider, an attorney and organizer.
In the long run, the organizers hope that drawing more public scrutiny and voting out the judges with harsh records could change the whole system. “These judges are being re-elected with impunity, and if we want to improve the justice system, it has to stop,” Schneider said. If Coghlan fails to win retention, “it’ll send a shockwave through the judiciary here,” Schneider said. “To say that a judge could potentially lose their job because of the disparate sentencing practices they’ve engaged in or their failure to do justice from the bench is something that judges will take notice of. … This is a tool of criminal justice reform.”
The coalition also plans to eventually campaign for judges who it feels wield their power fairly. “We want to empower judges to do the right thing,” Samuels said. “We’re also going to support the judges who are doing the right thing to make sure they’re not being retaliated against.”
There is the risk that others could campaign against retaining judges for the opposite reason: because they are seen as too lenient. Historically, judicial elections have been flooded with “tough-on-crime” campaigns that attack candidates for reversing wrongful convictions or freeing people early. Studies have found that election pressure causes judges to sentence more punitively. A campaign against a Colorado appellate judge who overturned a conviction after finding the defendant’s rights were violated has already kicked off ahead of his retention election in 2020. The Brennan Center for Justice, a criminal justice reform organization, has warned that “the dynamics of judicial elections may threaten judges’ ability to serve as impartial arbitrators in criminal cases.”
Brendan Shiller, a criminal defense and civil rights attorney involved in the anti-Coghlan campaign, acknowledged the risk of “right-wing reaction” to their approach, but argued that the coalition is simply fighting with the tools they have available.
“From a philosophical perspective, appointed judges may be better. … But, we have an elected system in Illinois,” he said. “Refusing to engage in the political fight because we may lose some seems stupid at best when we are already losing them all.”
The elections could be a mechanism to restore some faith in the entire criminal justice system. About two-thirds of Cook County residents polled by by Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute said they feel the criminal justice system is biased against Black people, perhaps unsurprising in a city where it was recently revealed that more than a hundred Black men were tortured by Chicago police for decades. No Chicago police officer had been convicted of murder for an on-duty shooting until last month, when a jury convicted officer Jason Van Dyke, who shot Black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times.
Advocates feel this is the right moment to test this strategy. “People are starting to think more in-depth about criminal justice issues, people are jazzed up to exercise their right to vote this cycle,” Schneider said. There also isn’t another high-profile race in Cook County that would “draw up all the oxygen.”
One big barrier for voters is the sheer amount of research to do on all the judges before before they head to the polls. Very little information on judges’ records is easily accessible to the public. “I’m a practicing attorney here, and I can tell you in all honesty I didn’t know even one fact about all of the judges up for retention,” Schneider said.
This year, the Cook County Democratic Party, which usually endorses every judge for retention, took the rare step of refusing to endorse Coghlan. Seven bar associations have also declined to recommend Coghlan for retention.
When asked for a comment from Judge Coghlan, a spokesperson for the Cook County Circuit Court said the judge couldn’t comment on political campaigns, referring the issue to the Committee for Retention of Judges in Cook County. The committee sent a statement saying Coghlan was rated qualified by “numerous bar associations” and denied any wrongdoing in the case of the two exonerated men. “The Committee for the Retention of Judges supports him 100% and urges a vote YES on retention,” the statement read.
Activists are targeting Cook County judges in other ways. Last week, demonstrators, including Black Lives Matter’s Hernandez, occupied and shut down the lobby of a courthouse to protest judges who violated an order to reduce bail amounts for people who can’t afford them. The action resulted in Chief Judge Timothy Evans agreeing to meet with the protesters. The tactics deployed against Judge Coghlan apply here, too. “Standing up and saying we are watching you,” Hernandez said. “When each judge comes up for election, we know which judges are over sentencing and defying this order.”
The campaign against Coghlan is just the beginning. There are retention elections for judges in Cook County every two years. “We’re just watching all of the judges,” Hernandez said. “We are mapping out when the time is for each of them.” Not every judge would be targeted for removal, but “I believe Matt Coghlan is the first of many,” she said.
The campaign might even decide to use different criteria next time, Lockett said. “After [Coghlan], then we can go after those who sentence minorities more harshly than the others, or who take 50 seconds on each bond, or are always giving a high bond,” Lockett said.
“It’s a long-term battle,” Hernandez said. “We fight hard in the short term, but our vision is always long term.”
“This is the first sign of the new changes we plan on pushing through Chicago over the next decade.”