Medill Watchdog/WGN Investigates series uncovers significant flaws in judge selection system

Starting on Monday, December 2, WGN Investigates will air a four-part series done in collaboration with the Medill Watchdog Initiative at Northwestern University. The stories are a continuation of a six-month project that began in the spring with a story about judicial hopefuls hiring political help. Now, Medill Watchdog teams up with WGN to expose the flaws in the system of electing judges by subcircuit. The new reports focus on how some judges circumvent laws and even avoid having their qualifications evaluated.

Medill Watchdog’s website,, will be posting a new story each day of the week with original content to supplement the stories airing on WGN. 

The project required the work of about twenty students combing over documents and doing original, hard-hitting reporting over the past months under the tutelage of Fredric Tulsky and acclaimed author and journalist Kari Lydersen.

Here is a small preview of our findings:

 Enter the murky world of Cook County subcircuits, a system devised two decades ago when African American, Hispanic and women legislators banded together with Republicans to shake up the system by dictating that at least some judges would come from sub-districts across the county that theoretically would be more representative of local communities.

With the subcircuit system have come a host of problems that legislators never anticipated when they enacted the system. A WGN Investigates-Medill Watchdog investigation has found the following:

  • Subcircuits have led to a greater number of poorly-rated judges taking the bench.
  • Politics retains a significant role in the process, as most voters in subcircuits have no clue who the judicial candidates are.
  • Several subcircuit judges bought new residences outside subcircuit from which they were elected, thwarting the legislative goal of diversity in not just race and sex, but geography.
  • The state Supreme Court has routinely filled vacancies for subcircuit seats with lawyers living outside those subcircuits – despite a state law to the contrary.

Read the series on the Medill Watchdog site or tune in to WGN News at 9.