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Only 1 Black judge given a seat in Cook County out of 17 openings

Illinois

Carol Ozemhoya| OW Contributor | 6/11/2018, 4:20 p.m.

A recent secret selection process to fill 17 Cook County associate judgeships netted only one African-American candidate picked for a spot on the bench, leaving legal leaders perplexed by a lack of minority representation on the Circuit Court, reports the Chicago Tribune. The results shocked some in the legal community, who said the election raises questions about diversity in Cook County’s judicial system. Dartesia Pitts, president of the Cook County Bar Association, said African-Americans make up about 25 percent of Cook residents, but only 15 percent of the county’s judges are Black. “I’m not a judge, I can’t tell you what happened behind the scenes, but the results say there seems to be a lack of commitment to African-American representation on the bench,” Pitts said. The election occurred by secret ballot last month, when Cook County Circuit Court judges voted to fill 17 associate judicial vacancies. A committee consisting of Chief Judge Timothy Evans and the county’s presiding judges selected 34 finalists to fill 17 associate vacancies. There were 272 licensed attorneys who submitted applications for consideration. Ten of the finalists were African-American, and two male candidates tied for one of the vacancies sparking a run-off. Erica Kirkwood, who was president of the Black Women Lawyers Association of Greater Chicago at the time of the election, said diversity is important to citizens. The lack of representation along racial lines can have a meaningful negative affect, she said. “If you see a judicial system that doesn’t look like you, you might perceive the system is unfair against you,” Kirkwood said. Frank Shuftan, a spokesman for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, said the judiciary is a co-equal branch of government and it’s up to sitting judges to fill the vacancies. “That said, it is discouraging that only two African-Americans were selected from the larger candidate pool to run against each other for one of the available associate seats on the Circuit Court,” Shuftan said. “President Preckwinkle maintains a strong belief that the composition of government should reflect the composition of the public it serves. Diversity on the bench is, and will continue to be, an important matter of concern for her.” Through a spokesman, Evans released a statement saying he “certainly” understands the concern “that the latest associate judge selection process did not yield a more racially diverse group of judges.” But, he said, the nominating committee “strives for the best and brightest examples reflecting excellence and diversity within the group of finalists,” and that’s what it did in this case. He said the judges selected “will do an excellent job,” and “concerns about the results should not negatively reflect on our new judges who are all deserving of these positions.” But moving forward, he said, they will “continue to bring the best and brightest legal minds to the bench.” Kirkwood said Evans has made significant efforts toward increasing diversity by attending events and pushing the issue. She said her organization and others would continue to raise awareness of diversity issues. “I’m hoping this is the last time we ever have to endure something like this,” Kirkwood said.