Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

For The First Time, A Chicago Judge Could Lose His Seat For Being Too ‘Tough on Crime’

No Cook County judge has lost a retention election in 28 years.

Exoneree Jose Montanez speaks in an ad against Judge Matthew Coghlan.
Judicial Accountability PAC

For The First Time, A Chicago Judge Could Lose His Seat For Being Too ‘Tough on Crime’

No Cook County judge has lost a retention election in 28 years.


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.”

Harris County Judges May Face a Reckoning Over Bail On Election Day

Republican misdemeanor judges in Houston have clung to an unconstitutional bail system. But their intransigence could cost them their seats.

Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo by dlewis33/Getty

Harris County Judges May Face a Reckoning Over Bail On Election Day

Republican misdemeanor judges in Houston have clung to an unconstitutional bail system. But their intransigence could cost them their seats.


This piece was produced in collaboration with the Texas Observer.

Typically, down-ballot judicial races in Texas’s largest county are sleepy affairs that attract little attention. But this year, the outcome of a dozen or so races for criminal court judge could keep thousands of Texans out of jail, and possibly even upend cash bail practices in Texas and beyond.

Harris County, which includes Houston, has been locked in a legal battle for two years over its practice of keeping people accused of minor crimes in jail if they can’t afford to pay bail. A landmark ruling by a federal judge in April 2017 found that the county’s bail system violated residents’ constitutional rights, detailing how judges ignored individuals’ ability to pay the bonds they were setting and worsened racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Chief Judge Lee Rosenthal of the Southern District Court of Texas ordered the county to release nearly all people accused of misdemeanors within 24 hours of arrest, regardless of their ability to pay bail.

Reform advocates heralded Rosenthal’s ruling as a fundamental blow to the legality of cash bail nationwide. But since then, 14 of the 16 sitting county misdemeanor judges have fought the ruling, spending more than 6 million taxpayer dollars in the appeals process.

Now, that fight has become a central issue for Democratic challengers to the judges. All 15 seats up for election are held by Republicans. Democrat Alex Salgado, a former prosecutor running against Judge Paula Goodhart, called the county’s treatment of people arrested for low-level crimes “mind-blowing.”

“People are stuck in jail and pleading [guilty] just because they can’t afford it,” he said. “That’s not how it should work.”

Salgado, a second-generation Mexican-American, is among a cohort of Democrats vying for the bench. Their party line is clear: “We in Harris County just believe in comprehensive bail reform,” said Odus Evbagharu, spokesperson for the Harris County Democratic Party. “Being poor is not a crime. Last time I checked, debtor’s prisons were illegal.”

“The judicial elections are critical to bail reform in Harris County,” said Rodney Ellis, a Democratic county commissioner. “It cannot be stressed enough that bail reform in Harris County could easily begin with the judges—they could do away with cash bail tomorrow if they chose to do so.”

Criminal court judges have tremendous power. They have the discretion to lower the pre-set bail schedule that hearing officers follow, to write policy that mandates the use of non-cash bail, and to show leniency when a person misses a hearing or is late.

The incumbent Republican judges have shown no interest in settling the suit or changing their ways. If Democrats win the judicial seats, it wouldn’t technically affect the constitutional argument around bail. The new judges could agree to a settlement, which activists and local leaders, including the district attorney and sheriff, have pushed the current judges to do.

The judges’ enthusiasm for preserving the bail system does not appear to match public opinion. Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez both ran on bail reform in 2016. The Houston Chronicle has endorsed all of the judicial challengers and recommended the removal of every incumbent judge still fighting the lawsuit. “The public needs to send a message that we will not tolerate the status quo, one that the judges have been content to live with for too long,” the editorial board wrote. “The only way to chart a path forward is to remove the current judges—root, branch and all.”

‘We do serve many masters’

The lawsuit that the 14 sitting judges have fought so hard was filed in 2016 on behalf of Maranda Lynn ODonnell, a young mother who could not afford the $2,500 bail levied against her for driving without a valid license. After a 60-second bond hearing, she spent two days in jail.

The cursory and draconian nature of bond hearings was revealed in recordings released by the Texas Organizing Project in 2016. The videos showed Harris County hearing officers setting cash bonds for homeless and mentally disabled people without considering their ability to pay, shouting down those who tried to defend themselves, and raising bond amounts to punish defendants who irritated them.  

A central question in the litigation is whether the judges instruct hearing officers on how to set bail. Records have shown that the misdemeanor judges regularly told the hearing officers to reject cashless bonds. Three of the hearing officers named in the ODonnell lawsuit testified before the state judicial ethics commission that they were simply following the judges’ instructions. “We do serve many masters,” one said. The judges have insisted that the hearing officers are entirely independent.

Now, the plaintiffs are trying to learn why the county destroyed over a year’s worth of emails between judges and hearing officers that could have been evidence in the case. On Oct. 26, their lawyers submitted a letter to Judge Rosenthal asking permission to depose court and county officials about the emails, arguing that the communications could settle the question of whether judges are giving hearing officers their marching orders.

The county admitted that it had continued to automatically delete emails, despite the legal requirement to preserve evidence, but said it was simply an oversight.

“No emails have been deliberately deleted, there was a technological glitch on the judges’ side,” said Robert Soard, the assistant attorney at the county attorney’s office, which is representing the judges along with more than a dozen private attorneys. He argued they had provided sufficient evidence, as they had already turned over the emails that some of the hearing officers had printed out.

That still leaves significant gaps, according to Elizabeth Rossi, an attorney with Civil Rights Corps, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that is part of the plaintiffs’ legal team.

“They have [turned over] what they printed. But who knows what they didn’t print?” she said. “We want to know more about how this happened and what was destroyed as a result.”

A hearing on the issue was set for last week, but was delayed until after Election Day once the judges’ lawyers said they had scheduling issues.

Accusations of sabotage

In addition to refusing to settle the lawsuit, the judges have tried to sabotage the new bail policies, according to the plaintiffs’ attorneys. Court officials have used misleading data to argue that the new rules are releasing more people who then fail to return for their hearings.

The two judges who support the lawsuit—the only Black judges among the 16—said their colleagues implemented a policy requiring that defendants released from jail appear in court the next day, a measure that can chiefly be understood as a “deliberate manipulation of the bond-forfeiture numbers,” Judge Darrell Jordan wrote in a declaration signed May 14. Some judges will also simply consider a bond forfeited if the person is even five minutes late to a hearing, he wrote.

The judges have sustained this prolonged and pricey legal saga because the lawsuit feels like a personal attack, said Scott Henson, policy director at Just Liberty, a Texas-based nonprofit that advocates criminal justice reform. “These guys are clinging onto the idea that they didn’t do anything wrong, they can’t understand the idea of a systemic critique,” Henson said. With progressive leaders in the sheriff’s department and district attorney’s office, the judges are a vestige of an old system. “It’s a past versus future kind of thing,” Henson said.

Voting the party line

The lawsuit’s outcome will establish the baseline constitutional requirements for bail practices, “but the judges are free to go beyond that,” said Neal Manne, an attorney on the plaintiffs’ legal team. “I think if Democrats are elected, they will say, ‘A new day is here.’”   

Political observers say that the judicial elections depend on U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke inspiring Harris County Democrats to vote. The enthusiasm for O’Rourke is driving voter turnout efforts in communities that tend to stay home during midterm elections. If they do turn out, they will most likely vote for their party down the ballot.

A single party has swept Harris County judicial elections in three of the last five elections, a Rice University analysis found, mainly thanks to voters choosing a “straight ticket” option that selects every candidate from one political party.

“The O’Rourke phenomenon has been so remarkable,” said Jay Kumar Aiyer, an assistant professor of public policy at Texas Southern University. We’re seeing so much interest from young voters and minorities. If that translates to the ballot box it could spell a significant difference for the state and Harris County.”

Advocates say this is the first time bail reform is on the radar for judicial hopefuls in Harris County.

“Things need to change,” Salgado said, “and they need to change quickly.”

More in Explainers

Special Edition: Attorney General Elections Guide

Special Edition: Attorney General Elections Guide


Special Edition: Attorney General Elections Guide

As American voters are bombarded with messages about what they can do to control the House and Senate, few voters, or news outlets, are as fired up about another crucial group that is up for election on Nov. 6: state attorneys general. Even John Oliver recently chided voters for not educating themselves on the AG races. “The primary task of reforming criminal justice in the United States falls to state and local officials,” writes StateAG.org, a legal research and education website that examines the role of state attorneys general in law and national policy. “State attorneys general in many states are using an array of approaches to address systemic criminal justice issues, such as mass incarceration, policing practices, and changes in criminal sentencing.” [StateAG.org]

The Appeal: Political Report website has provided analysis of various competitive state attorney general races, including Florida, Kansas, Delaware, and Colorado. Below, we bring you some highlights from that coverage, as well as analysis of a competitive attorney general race in Maryland.

MARYLAND

Republican Craig Wolf decided to challenge incumbent Attorney General Brian Frosh, espousing various criminal justice tactics that seem like relics of the tough-on-crime era that oversaw the mass incarceration crisis. “I was just appalled with what was going on with the crime, Baltimore being the murder capital of the country, 2,000 opioid deaths a year, we’re fourth in the country in trafficking women and children, gang and gun violence everywhere, and the current attorney general seems focused on the politics,” Wolf said. A former prosecutor, Wolf joined the U.S. Army after the Sept. 11 attacks and deployed to Afghanistan at the age of 49. Wolf worked for the Justice Department and Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, and then became a lobbyist for wine and liquor wholesalers. “He’s been running ads on Baltimore television stations featuring news coverage of violence in the city,” reports the Baltimore Sun. “He wants stiffer prison sentences, easier jailing of suspects awaiting trial, and the return of the death penalty in Maryland.” [Ian Duncan / Baltimore Sun]

“Frosh says Wolf’s focus on criminal prosecutions misunderstands the role of the attorney general—which has to ask permission from local prosecutors before using a grand jury to investigate or file charges—and overlooks Frosh’s efforts to do more to help tackle violent crime,” according to the Sun. “Frosh hired senior prosecutors from the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office as leaders on his team and started a violent crime unit, which he says has brought charges against more than 100 people.” Wolf wants to impose new mandatory minimum sentences, but has not stated which offenses they would apply to. On pretrial detention, Wolf would seek to undo the new law that requires judges to consider defendants’ ability to pay when setting bail. Frosh had championed that change. “It’s an easy fix,” he said. “It saves money. It allows people to lead productive lives. It delivers better justice.” But Wolf says, “They’re there for a reason. They’re in jail because of something they did,” although he acknowledges, “They still have the presumption of innocence.” [Ian Duncan / Baltimore Sun]

Polling from less than a month ago shows the race tightening, with 23 percent of voters undecided. [Rachel Chason and Scott Clement / Washington Post]

COLORADO

In the Democratic primary for attorney general of Colorado, Phil Weiser, a law professor at the University of Colorado, beat state Representative Joe Salazar. Both articulated reformist positions: support for the state’s marijuana legalization and bail reform, opposition to the death penalty, and a commitment to offering legal support to sanctuary cities. Weiser was more moderate than Salazar, saying that although he opposed the death penalty, he would defend it as it currently stands in Colorado. He also did not espouse the more aggressive reforms embraced by Salazar. Weiser now faces Republican George Brauchler, the district attorney of Colorado’s Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert, and Lincoln counties. In a statement in March, the ACLU of Colorado highlighted Brauchler’s “devotion” to capital punishment. “Brauchler and his office reside at the extreme fringe of the issue in Colorado,” it said, noting that “Colorado’s death row is occupied exclusively by black men from Brauchler’s district.” Brauchler has also mounted a legal battle with the Colorado Independent, a publication that sought to unseal records about prosecutorial misconduct. And he is blocking efforts to revisit juvenile sentences in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down mandatory sentences of life without parole for children. In April, he filed a petition that challenged the constitutionality of a new state law that provided for reconsideration of such sentences. [Daniel Nichanian / Appeal: Political Report]

FLORIDA

Sean Shaw says he is running for attorney general of Florida to “hold the legislature accountable” for failing to implement ballot initiatives approved by the voters. This comes amid a nationwide pattern of referendums being disregarded by elected officials. Shaw, a state lawmaker himself who is now the Democratic nominee, says he could even sue the legislature to ensure compliance. One of the referendums that Shaw has in mind is on medical marijuana, which passed overwhelmingly as an amendment to the state Constitution in 2016. Governor Rick Scott and the legislature then adopted a ban on smoking marijuana. A court has since struck down that ban as violating the referendum, and officials are appealing that decision. The Republican nominee for attorney general, former circuit court judge Ashley Moody, supports the appeal and the ban on smokable marijuana; Shaw does not. “The day I take office those appeals will end,” he said. Shaw has also indicated support for wider marijuana legalization and for policies that move away from incarcerating people for drug possession. “We ought to be building substance abuse centers, not just more prisons all the time,” he said. Shaw says that he would like Florida’s Stand Your Ground law repealed because it enables murder. Shaw also supports the initiative to restore the voting rights of most people who complete a sentence following a felony conviction, which Moody opposes. [Daniel Nichanian / Appeal: Political Report]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you next week.

Have a tip for The Appeal? Write to us at tips@theappeal.org. A good tip is a clear description of newsworthy information that is supported by documented evidence.

More in Podcasts