The letters from Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan are short and to the point.
"Dear Judge," begins one, written on Madigan's General Assembly stationery. "I believe that these people would be excellent members of the judiciary."
Tucked into the letter to Cook County's Circuit Court judges are the names of a handful of lawyers, blessed by Madigan to fill judicial openings.
Madigan's letters provide a glimpse of his influence in what passes for merit selection of associate judges, who are chosen by the county's 275 circuit judges.
Many of those full circuit judges were publicly elected with the help of the Democratic Party that Madigan controls — and the judicial slating committee run by Ald. Edward Burke, 14th. While the party wields overt power in those elections, the process of picking associate judges is touted as a way for talented lawyers to make the bench without bowing to political bosses or wooing uninformed and uninterested voters.
But politicking for the coveted associate judgeships is rampant in Chicago's legal community, and the Tribune found one of the best ways to win a spot is to be on what is widely referred to as "Madigan's list."
Since 2003, Madigan has recommended 37 lawyers to become associate judges, and 25 were selected outright, according to documents obtained by the Tribune and interviews. Several more made it to the bench through appointments.
About half of those on Madigan's list made political donations to his daughter, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the state's highest law enforcement official. Campaign contributions are common among lawyers vying for judgeships and are typically not large — but enough to indicate the donor recognizes the value of political participation.
Malcolm Rich, executive director of the Chicago Council of Lawyers, which rates judicial candidates, said political pedigree or a familiar-sounding name too often trumps qualifications when the public votes. The process of selecting associate judges is intended to increase diversity and quality on the bench by filtering clout out of the equation.
But Rich acknowledged politics can never be removed completely, and he said the Madigan letters show his organization and others must be constantly vigilant. This year, more than 240 lawyers have applied for 10 associate judge vacancies.
"Obviously, the political process has adapted itself enough that it is identifying people who have connections yet are qualified in their own right," Rich said. "In addition to getting the kind of experience that makes them qualified to become a judge, people are realizing that certain kinds of contributions and friendships don't hurt."
In a statement, Madigan said he makes recommendations free of political influence or self-interest and "because I believe I am an experienced evaluator of those who seek to serve in the judiciary."
Madigan is a name partner in one of the city's top property tax-appeal law firms, Madigan and Getzendanner. The firm's lawyers practice in many venues, including before some circuit judges who got their jobs with the help of the Democratic Party. Madigan said his personal "code of conduct" prohibits any conflict of interest.
"Over a number of years, various people have asked for my support in their bid to be elected associate judge," Madigan said. "My comments in reaction to those requests concerning the election of associate judges are not made on behalf or in connection with my law firm, public or political positions."
Burke, former state Sen. President Emil Jones, D-Chicago, and a variety of other local politicians also promote candidates for the associate judge spots. But in recent years, none did so with the regularity of Madigan, according to the review of recommendation letters obtained by the Tribune and interviews with many participants in the process.
One lawyer said he felt the sting of not being on Madigan's list. The lawyer, a former prosecutor who asked not to be identified because he still hopes to become a judge, said he worked hard to get support of the sitting judges, handing out resumes and visiting their chambers.
"The next thing they would say was, 'Are you on Madigan's list?'" he said. "Then it was, 'Oh, you should be on the list.'"
Associate Judge John Thomas Carr was selected after he was named in Madigan's 2007 letter. He said judges and other lawyers told him being on Madigan's list would be a good thing, so he wrote a letter to the House speaker stressing his qualifications. He said he heard nothing back.
"Then a judge told me, 'You're on Madigan's list,'" he recalled. "I said, 'You're kidding me.'"
Carr said he had no idea why he ended up on the list: "I am not a politician and I have no political friends."
Judge Brian K. Flaherty said he has no idea how he ended up on Madigan's 2003 list. Flaherty, former counsel to then-Democratic Sheriff Michael Sheahan, said he learned about it after the letter was sent to the voting judges.
"People have said being on his list is a good thing," Flaherty said. "I have no idea if that's true or not. I have no idea how the judges view his letters."
Sitting judges who asked not to be identified said they and their colleagues know Madigan's clout as chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party as well as at the state Capitol, where the longtime speaker holds unrivaled control over the General Assembly. The judges said that when a letter from Madigan arrives, they take notice.
"People assume that if you are on Madigan's list, you will get made," one circuit judge said. "Madigan has a lot of power in Springfield. He does things that could affect our salaries and pensions."
State lawmakers must sign off on changes to salary and retirement benefits for the more than 400 judges in the Cook County Circuit Court system, the nation's largest, with courts at the Daley Center in the Loop and six suburban municipal districts.
The Cook County Democratic Party, run by Madigan ally Joseph Berrios, acts as a virtual gatekeeper for candidates seeking to run in the party primary to become a full circuit judge — a win there is tantamount to victory in the general election. That slating process has long been run by Burke, whose wife, Anne Burke, became a Supreme Court justice with the party's help.
This year, as in others when there are associate judge openings, a nominating committee of circuit judges will select a shortlist of finalists from the applicants.
The shortlist sets off a frenzied two weeks of private campaigning. The candidates send cards, letters, resumes and recommendations, and try to visit as many circuit judges as they can and ask for their vote. Ethnic groups lobby for their members to be supported, and circuit judges sometimes write one another letters pushing for candidates they know.
From 2003 through 2009, there were five contests for associate judge, and more than 135 lawyers made the final cut to fill 82 vacancies.
Many got recommendations from judges, lawyers, bar associations and politicians, in letters that often mentioned how they know the candidates and what their qualifications are.
Jones, who retired as state Senate president in 2009, said lawyers came to him and asked for his support, adding he was unsure whether his letters really gave the candidates a boost.
"Maybe they did, maybe they didn't," he said.
Then why write the letters?
"There are some things you just do," Jones said.
Four of the six candidates Jones supported since 2005 became judges, including two who were also backed by Madigan.
Getting the backing of multiple patrons can pay off. Judge Carr, for instance, said he also went to "pay his respects" to Ald. Burke because he had heard it was a good thing to do.
Being a political donor also appears to be an advantage. The vast majority of candidates for associate judge in recent years have made political donations, according to a review of state campaign finance records. More than a dozen lawyers who became associate judges gave to Burke or his political organizations.
Most of the 37 candidates in Madigan's letters did not return messages left by the Tribune.
Carr said he and the other judges on Madigan's 2007 list were qualified and have performed well.
Most of the 37 associate judge hopefuls backed by Madigan were rated "qualified" or "well qualified" by bar associations, with the exception of a handful who were rated "not qualified" by the Chicago Council of Lawyers. Unlike the written recommendations from many other supporters or political patrons, Madigan's letters do not mention the qualifications of those he endorses or how he knows them.
"I think the following people would be good judges," was all he wrote in his 2009 letter.
Some of Madigan's picks don't make it their first time up.
Take Laura Bertucci Smith, a former Cook County prosecutor whose husband is a regular contributor to Democrats. He gave $1,000 to Lisa Madigan in 2002 and $500 in 2003. Bertucci Smith donated $300 to Ald. Burke in 2004. She wasn't picked when she was on the speaker's 2005 list.
But the Illinois Supreme Court appointed her to fill an opening in 2007, and in 2008 she ran for associate judge again. Once again, Madigan backed her and this time she won. Messages left for Bertucci Smith went unreturned.
Likewise, Ellen Mandeltort and Patrice Ball-Reed, both of whom had worked for Lisa Madigan, were bypassed when the speaker recommended them in 2007. But the following year they were picked after again appearing on Madigan's list.
Messages left for Mandeltort and Ball-Reed were not returned.
Still, Madigan's blessing isn't a guarantee.
Defense lawyer Robert G. Clarke was on Madigan's 2007 letter but never was selected.
"The mysteries of higher powers have passed me over," Clarke said, declining to speak about it further.