Democrats sweep Cook County judicial elections; Judge Coghlan retention bid rejected

By Jonathan Bilyk | Nov 7, 2018

Amid a night of historic domination at the polls, Democrats also largely swept once more in the races for judges in Cook County’s courts, flexing their muscle not only in contested races, but also in withdrawing support from a Democratic judge and former prosecutor, who, after being targeted by a coalition of social justice advocates, became the first county judge in nearly three decades to lose his bid for retention to the bench.

On Nov. 6, voters in Chicago and suburban Cook County elected a swath of judges to the county’s benches. And all of the winners carried the endorsement of the county’s Democratic Party.

All of the judges on the ballot to serve as full circuit judges were Democrats, and all ran unopposed in the general election.

And in the county’s subcircuits, Democrats also swept those contests, as well, according to results posted by the Cook County Clerk's office.

In the few contested races in judicial subcircuits located in suburban areas, Democrats took all five, including a contest in which the Democratic candidate had changed his name in what observers characterized as a brazen political ploy to appear to be of Irish descent.

In the 13th Judicial Subcircuit, which includes the townships of Schaumburg, Hanover, Barrington and Palatine and a portion of Wheeling Township, Democrat Shannon P. O’Malley edged Republican Daniel Fitzgerald, securing 57,778 votes to Fitzgerald’s 55,500.

Prior to seeking election to the bench, O’Malley, a Schaumburg attorney who had been a Republican, also legally changed his name from Phillip Spiwak. That change was labeled as “a blatant attempt to improve his electoral prospects … deceiving voters by changing his party affiliation and his perceived ethnic origin,” by John Pastuovic, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League.

O’Malley was not recommended by the Illinois State Bar Association, while Fitzgerald was rated as “qualified” by the ISBA and “highly qualified” for the post by the ICJL.

Elsewhere, the contested races were much less close.

In the 12th Subcircuit, which includes portions of New Trier, Northfield, Wheeling, Elk Grove and Maine townships, Democrat Joel Chupack defeated Republican David Studenroth, bringing in 68,650 votes to 52,550 for Studenroth.

In other 13th Subcircuit races, Democrats Kethi “Kay” Steffen and Samuel J. Betar each won election to the county bench. Steffen defeated Republican Gary W. Seyring, 62,225-51,092. Betar secured 61,299 votes to 52,737 for Republican Christine Svenson.

And in the 15th Judicial Subcircuit, which includes all or portions of Bloom, Rich, Bremer, Orland, Worth, Palos and Lemont townships, Democrat Scott McKenna trounced Republican Karla Marie Fiaoni, 83,204 votes to 47,801.

In addition to the contested races and uncontested county judicial balloting, Cook County voters were also asked to retain a slate of nearly five dozen county previously elected Cook County Circuit Court judges.

Under Illinois law, judges who have been elected in a partisan election must then stand on the ballot in a retention vote. Under this scenario, they must secure at least 60 percent support from voters, who are asked simply to vote “yes” or “no” on whether a judge should be retained for another term on the bench.

Voters had not kicked a judge off the bench in 28 years. However, that changed on Nov. 6, when Circuit Judge Matthew Coghlan fell far short of the required total.

Coghlan, who had served as judge since 2000, managed only about 52 percent of the vote favoring his retention, as a total of 644,409 voters said “yes” and 584,448 voted “no” across the entire county. However, in ballots cast in the city of Chicago, a slim majority voted to reject Coghlan’s retention bid, as 299,914 voters said “no” and 298,915 voted “yes,” according to vote totals posted by the Chicago Board of Elections.

Coghlan, a former Cook County prosecutor, had been targeted for removal by a coalition of progressive activists, who asserted he should be punished for his role in leading the prosecution of two men whose convictions had been overturned after 23 years in prison. The men have since sued Coghlan, accusing him of teaming with a Chicago police detective to frame them for murder. Coghlan has denied the allegations.

Under pressure from the activists, the Cook County Democratic Party retracted its endorsement of Coghlan. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle also asked publicly asked voters to reject Coghlan’s bid.

The Illinois Supreme Court will appoint a replacement for Coghlan later this year.

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