Watchdog investigation airs on WGN-TV, published in Chicago Tribune

Watch the story on WGN-TV and read it in the Chicago Tribune

For years legal experts have grappled with the issue of whether, and how to, minimize the impact of politics in the judicial system. In the abstract, voters want the power to decide who sits on the bench. But that ideal can conflict with concern that judges not be beholden to politicians or whoever contributed widely to their campaigns. Nor is a system of appointed judges necessarily a panacea; just taking power from voters and putting it in the hands of a smaller group that may be guided by their own political interests does not necessarily assure a more pristine judiciary.

But one need not worry about what system works best to recognize the problems that long have plagued judicial election in Cook County. It is a system where voters walk into the voting booth to find a bunch of unfamiliar names for positions of enormous power. So some ethnic-sounding names will appeal to some voters; women candidates may attract some voters and lose others. And some names just fare better: “Fitzgerald” somehow attracts voters in a way even other Irish names might not. It is a system where getting onto the party’s slate can mean victory – and worth paying tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege.

For lawyers who never entered the political arena, how to get attention and get elected becomes a dilemma. Many turn to one or another of unlikely paid consultants who offer magical help. 

Yet it is a decision with vast consequences for justice in our region. That makes the issue an ideal topic for Medill Watchdog – a program where Northwestern undergraduates, graduate students and recent graduates undertake in-depth research on institutional failures. The initiative has undertaken a joint project with WGN-TV and the Chicago Tribune to examine the implication of money and politics on the process.

Rick Tulsky, Senior Lecturer
Medill Watchdog Director