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.'"
Madigan letters offer glimpse of clout in Cook County judge selection
House Speaker Michael Madigan and other politicians often weigh in on the selection of Cook County associate judges — a process supposed to be free of political influence.
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