Voting for Judges in Cook County in the November General Election

The Benchmark PAC for Cook County Judges sets a threshold of 100% positive ratings from area bar associations and 15 years of experience. Benchmark includes analysis of write-ups from the Chicago Council of Lawyers, the Chicago Bar Association, and the Illinois State Bar Association in establishing recommendations.

General Election

Most of the candidates on Cook County ballots who are running for election to the Circuit Court of Cook County are running unopposed as Democrats. Having won their primary elections in the spring, they face no opposition from Republicans in the general election.

(Please don’t ask me how this qualifies as “nonpartisan.”)

Five suburban subcircuit races feature one candidate in each of the major parties, and based on their ratings from the spring primaries, the following candidates meet Benchmark thresholds:

12th Subcircuit – Maki Vacancy
121      Joel Chupack (D)
122      David Studenroth (R)

13th Subcircuit – Crane Vacancy
121      Ketki “Kay” Steffen (D)
122      Gary William Seyring (R)

13th Subcircuit – Lawrence Vacancy
124      Daniel Patrick Fitzgerald (R)

13th Subcircuit – O’Donnell Vacancy
125      Samuel J. Betar, III (D)

15th Subcircuit – Zelezinski Vacancy
122      Scott McKenna (D)

In the interest of a fair application of its criteria, Benchmark leaves it to voters in the Maki and Crane Vacancy races to choose based either on the nuances within positive ratings (see page 7 of the results from the Alliance of Bar Associations for Judicial Screening for details; the Chicago Bar Association rates Joel Chupack “highly qualified” and David Studenroth, Ketki “Kay” Steffen, and Gary William Seyring “qualified”) or on party affiliation.


Assessment of the results of judicial evaluations at and indicates that voters should vote NO on the candidates for retention as Illinois judges listed below. Each received one or more negative ratings from one of the eleven bar groups that are members of the Alliance of Bar Associations for Judicial Screening or the Chicago Bar Association. Vote NO on:

205      Kathy M. Flanagan

217      Catherine Marie Haberkorn

219      James M. Varga

227      Maura Slattery Boyle

231      Matthew E. Coghlan

275      Andrea M. Schleifer

283      Lionel Jean-Baptiste

314      Lisa Ann Marino

Please vote YES on all the rest.

For a one-page summary to use and share, please click here.

Benchmark PAC bids farewell

Due to changed circumstances, the Benchmark PAC for Cook County Judges ceased operations at the end of 2018. This will be the last blog post from the PAC, but there is good news to consider.

The extent of the PAC’s impact on the 2018 elections is difficult to determine, but those of us who have worked over the course of decades to promote excellence on the Illinois judiciary can take heart from some of the 2018 results. Like: for the first time since 1992, Cook County voters knocked a sitting judge off the bench in the general election. Matthew Coghlan received only 36% positive ratings from the Alliance of Bar Associations for Judicial Screening, and the media deserve credit for getting the word out.

The March 2018 primary ballot featured 39 judicial races. 23 of the Benchmark PAC’s picks were elected in November, and another five were appointed to the bench by Chief Judge Timothy P. Evans or the Illinois Supreme Court in 2018. In most of the eleven races where the Benchmark PAC’s recommended candidate did not win, we would be hard-pressed to object too strenuously to the seating of those sworn in in early December.

However, it bears noting that Democrat Shannon Phillip O’Malley won the Lawrence vacancy in the usually dependably Republican 13th subcircuit in Chicago’s northwest. Of particular interest is that Phillip Spiwak ran in the 13th subcircuit in 2010 as a Republican and lost, then changed his name to Shannon Phillip O’Malley in 2012. The real kicker: O’Malley apparently opted not to participate in evaluation by either the Alliance or the Chicago Bar Association in 2018 (y’all already know what I think of this), resulting in his being found not recommended by all twelve bar groups, yet he still beat a candidate who did the electorate the courtesy of participating. A candidate who can only receive 100% “not recommended” ratings because of too few years in practice can recover and gain positive ratings six years later as a retention candidate. It will be interesting to see how things go in 2024 for a candidate with 26 years of experience as a lawyer, but who chose in 2018 to leave the electorate in the dark about his qualifications.

As we noted in a March blog post, incumbents may have actually been burdened by being the Democratic Party-slated candidates in some subcircuit races. Maybe it’s time for so-called nonpartisan judicial elections in Illinois to become actually nonpartisan by having all candidates appear on all primary ballots.

Many thanks are owed to Benchmark PAC’s donors, partners, supporters, and friends. The Illinois justice system is largely in the hands of the people – let’s be sure to honor those who serve or appear in court by taking the vote seriously. Visit around election time for complete voter information from the Alliance of Bar Associations for Judicial Screening.

—Susana Darwin, 4 January 2018

Analysis: The 2018 Cook County Judicial Primaries by the Numbers

Congratulations to the judicial candidates who prevailed in this week’s primaries! Even though some of the 40 candidates for election to the Circuit Court of Cook County that the Benchmark Judicial Voting Guide promoted did not win, voters appear to have opted in almost every case for candidates with strong qualifications.


According to the Cook County Clerk’s office, out of 1,549,688 registered voters, 441,732 voters in suburban Cook County cast ballots – 28.5%.

In the City of Chicago itself, with 1,494,199 voters registered, turnout was 460,920 – 30.85%.

A total of 902,652 people voted in the 2018 primaries in Chicago and suburban Cook County.

Countywide Judicial Races

Votes cast among Democrats:

  • only 527,890 votes were cast in the uncontested race for the Dunford vacancy;
  • by contrast, at the high end, 610,145 cast votes in the three-way race for the Brewer vacancy.

Percentage winners:

  • Judge Cecilia A. Horan was the highest percentage winner, with almost 78% of the vote in a two-person race against Keith L. Spence.
  • Kathleen Theresa Lanahan was the lowest percentage winner, with just over 37% of the vote in a contest against three other candidates.

Because no Republican candidates ran for judge countywide, those who won the Democratic primary on Tuesday have already won the November election.

Subcircuit Judicial Races

Thirteen out of fifteen smaller districts in Cook County – subcircuits – had judicial elections.

Votes cast:

  • The smallest vote totals were among Republicans running in suburban subcircuits. In the Zelezinski vacancy race, for example, Republican candidate Karla Marie Fiaoni drew 13,366 votes, but she ran unopposed.
  • By contrast, Scott McKenna beat his single opponent on the Democratic side of the contest for the Zelezinski vacancy, with more than 52% of the vote and a total of 46,094 votes were cast in that race.

McKenna and Fiaoni will face off in the November general election.

8th Subcircuit Drama

The 8th Subcircuit stretches along the lakefront entirely within Chicago’s city limits. It featured three races, and more than 54,000 votes were cast in each.

These races are notable because judges who are currently sitting by Supreme Court appointment lost in all three races:

  • Judge Robin D. Shoffner
  • Judge Michael A. Forti
  • Judge Myron “Mike” Mackoff

All three will step down from the bench in December unless they secure appointment as associate judges by the Circuit Court of Cook County – a story for another day.

All three were also on the Democratic Party’s slate, so one wonders whether the controversy surrounding Cook County Assessor/Cook County Democratic Party Chairman Joseph Berrios had reverberative effect. Maybe it’s just coincidental that the winners in the 8th subcircuit races were the first candidate listed in all three races.

Having the Job Is No Guarantee of Keeping It

The outcomes for Judges Shoffner, Forti, and Mackoff were repeated across Cook County. Besides those three, 12 other sitting judges lost their seats. By contrast, 14 primary candidates already sitting by Supreme Court appointment get to keep their jobs. Put another way, more than half of the 29 judges sitting by appointment lost the elections to keep their seats.

So the extent to which already having the job helps a candidate win the job is obviously debatable.

Contested Races in November’s General Election

The 12th, 13th, and 15th subcircuits in suburban Cook County will each have a Democrat and a Republican on the ballot come November.

  • 12 is in the north-central section of the county.
  • 13 is in the northwest corner of the county, where there will be two contested races in the general election.
  • 15 is in the far south of the county.

Here are the Benchmark recommendations for candidates in competition in November:

  • 12th subcircuit (Maki vacancy): Joel Chupack
  • 13th subcircuit (Crane vacancy): Ketki “Kay” Steffen
  • 13th subcircuit (Lawrence vacancy): no recommendation (see the Benchmark Guide for Benchmark recommendation criteria)
  • 15th subcircuit (Zelezinski vacancy): Scott McKenna

Bar Association Ratings

The hard work of Chicago-area bar groups’ judicial evaluation committees seems to have made a difference:

  • Not a single candidate found uniformly “not recommended” or “not qualified” by the Alliance of Bar Associations for Judicial Screening or the Chicago Bar Association got elected. This has occurred in recent elections.
  • Only four winners out of a total field of 110 had one “NR” or “NQ” rating.
  • Only two winners had more than one “NR” or “NQ” rating.
  • One candidate won despite having 10 negative ratings out of 12. She was part of a powerful coordinated groundswell and deserves our support as she transitions from practicing law to sitting on the bench.

It is unlikely that Illinoisans will change how we put judges on the bench any time soon, given that our state constitution mandates electing them and that experience suggests that other systems can be even more corrupt than an electoral one. It’s our system, the people’s system, which means it’s ours to cultivate and maintain in the service of justice.

About the Benchmark PAC for Cook County Judges

The Benchmark PAC for Cook County Judges was established in 2017 to promote the election of the most qualified candidates to the bench in Cook County.

Founder Susana Darwin spent more than two decades evaluating judicial candidates with the Alliance of Bar Associations for Judicial Screening and the Judicial Evaluation Committee of the Lesbian and Gay Bar Association of Chicago. She also served on the Cook County Judicial Advisory Council and the Judicial Performance Commission.

Darwin created the Benchmark PAC for Cook County Judges to help get the most qualified and representative candidates elected to the Cook County bench. She is committed to transparency, fairness and independence in our judicial system.

Benchmark criteria:
• At least RECOMMENDED or QUALIFIED by ALL Alliance of Bar Associations for Judicial Screening  groups and the Chicago Bar Association;
• at least 15 years in law practice;
• analysis of write-ups from the Chicago Council of Lawyers, the Chicago Bar Association, and the Illinois State Bar Association

 Benchmark recommendation sources:

Benchmark PAC logo

Susana Darwin
© Joe Mazza

 About Susana Darwin

A woman of many passions, Susana Darwin has been politically active for four decades and engaged in judicial evaluations for more than 25 years. She is committed to transparency, fairness and independence in our judicial system.

Darwin has been active in Cook County’s judicial elections since 1992, when the fledgling Judicial Evaluation Committee of the Lesbian and Gay Bar Association of Chicago (LAGBAC JEC) began evaluating judicial candidates and issuing ratings. She served in leadership roles with the Association and the Committee for the better part of 25 years.

After the LAGBAC JEC became a constituent of the Alliance of Bar Associations for Judicial Screening, Darwin spent more than a decade on the Executive Committee of the Alliance, including two years as co-chair. Darwin produced training materials for Alliance evaluators and led training workshops on conducting investigations and interviews of candidates. She has also been a speaker and organizer for programs designed to guide potential candidates through the process for becoming a judge in Cook County.

Darwin is a 2017 recipient of the Vanguard Award, with which Chicago-area bar associations recognize “individuals and institutions who have made the law and legal profession more accessible to and reflective of the community at large.” She is a graduate of IIT/Chicago-Kent College of Law, has been a member of the Illinois bar since 1994, and is also a writer and filmmaker.