Why and how we vote for judges

Baffling: That's what one writer called the slew of judges appearing on ballots for the fall state/county election. While the rest of the ballot seems pretty clear, voters inevitably have questions about the many pages of judicial candidates. Here are those questions, along with our answers.

Why do we have to vote for all these judges?

Illinois has four flavors of judges: supreme, appellate, circuit, and associate circuit. The Illinois constitution requires that the first three must be elected—unlike other states, where judges are appointed via something called a merit system. This translates to about 275 judges eligible for election by Cook County voters (though not all at the same time).1

What's with subcircuits? Does this mean our judges are wired?

In the early '90s, the state legislature divided Cook County into 15 judicial subcircuits, aiming to increase the number of minority and Republican judges. A judge running for election in a subcircuit must live there, and is elected by the voters in that subcircuit.2

Why does a judge's name appear all by itself—where I just vote (or don't vote) for him or her?

When a judicial candidate stands for election the first time, they're nominated by political parties. A successful candidate must win their party's primary election, then go on to run in the general election. But in Cook County, many judgeships have no candidates other than the Democrat primary winner. So only that person's name appears on the ballot in the general election.

Does that mean that this candidate wins the judgeship, even if no one votes for them?


What about the part of the ballot where I vote "yes" or "no" for a judge?

These are current judges who are asking to be retained (elected to a new term). To win retention, each of these judges must receive "yes" votes from 60 percent of the votes cast.

What happens if a judge doesn't get 60 percent?

They lose their job, and the state Supreme Court appoints someone to the judgeship temporarily. At the end of that judge's term, the judgeship is opened to nomination by political parties as described above.3

How long are judge terms?

Supreme court justice, 10 years; appellate court justice, 10 years; and circuit court judge, six years. Associate circuit court judges serve four-year terms, but these are appointed by the circuit court.

1. "2013 Annual Report - Administrative Summary," Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts

2. "Electing Judges in Cook County: The Role of Money, Political Party, and the Voters," The Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, April 2003

3. "Illinois judges: Too much retention and too little selection," Illinois Issues, Paul Lermack, June 1979