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Judging Judges

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Dear editor:

I am writing in response to the Neighborhood News piece of March 11, 1994, concerning IVI-IPO judicial ratings. While I have no firsthand knowledge of the details of the dispute in the article, I do know that your article misunderstands the nature of judicial evaluations by groups of lawyers.

I was president of the Chicago Council of Lawyers from 1991 to 1993, and previously was cochair of its state judicial evaluation committee. (I was not involved in this year's ratings.) The Council has been rating judges and judicial candidates for 25 years. The Council was founded in 1969 because of a perception that the Chicago Bar Association was rarely willing to criticize the quality of judges in Cook County.

In evaluating a lawyer or judge's qualifications for the bench, the Council looks to see if the candidate has demonstrated the ability to serve on the applicable court in the following categories: fairness, legal competence, integrity, experience, judicial temperament, respect for the rule of law, and independence from political and institutional influence. In order to obtain information on these points, we contact lawyers and judges who are familiar with the work of the candidate. Candidates provide lists of references; we try to obtain information both from people on their list and from others off their list.

Bar associations can obtain almost no meaningful information criticizing a candidate without a promise of confidentiality. Reporters are familiar with the problem of sources who do not wish to go public. They should understand that lawyers--who make their livelihoods practicing before judges--are loath to publicly criticize a candidate before whom they may have to practice.

The confidential nature of sources does not mean that a bar association's evaluations are mere rumor or gossip-mongering. One negative report would not sway the Council. The Council gives information weight when we hear the same problem (for example, legal ability) again and again, or when both sides in cases give the same information, or when the winner in a case criticizes a judge's rulings, temperament, or ability. In addition, highly respected judges sometimes give detailed information to the Council about attorneys or other judges.

None of this confidential information can be repeated in public. And while the Council always confronts candidates with criticism it has received, sometimes the confrontation must be in general terms, in order to avoid exposing sources.

The necessity of confidentiality in judicial evaluations by bar groups has been recognized by the Illinois Appellate Court. That court has approved a privilege for information given in confidence to a bar group rating a judicial candidate.

I had no involvement in this year's IVI-IPO evaluation, but in past years that group's judicial evaluation committee has consisted of lawyers who have attempted to conduct a bar-type evaluation of candidates. In past years, IVI-IPO has done a good job at keeping its judicial evaluations separate from the political nature of other endorsements.

Having small groups--or large groups--voting on judges on the basis of politics, without information about their actual performance, is what has led us to our current judiciary. (Once again, yesterday's races led to a number of "not qualified" judges winning primary races.) Frankly, your article is just one more argument for why we need an appointed judiciary.

Barry A. Miller

S. LaSalle

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