By Laurie BergnerOn March 20, we will all have the opportunity to vote in two primaries, the results of which will contribute to determining the quality of McLean County’s justice system: one for circuit court judge and the other for state’s attorney.
Knowing how to choose the best candidate in these races can be difficult. Without the kind of information we usually have for legislators, such as whether they vote the way we want them to, voters may instead find themselves choosing a candidate based on politics, name recognition or letters to the editor — not the best way to determine quality of candidates.
Let’s begin with judges.
What is crucial for a good judge is knowledge of the law, fair and even-handed treatment of all parties and good control over the courtroom.
You may think you want a judge who publicly supports social and political positions that you agree with, but I’m here to tell you, that’s not what you really want. Why not? If you find yourself in court believing you’ve been cheated by a business, would you rather be facing a judge who is pro-business or one who finds according to the merits of the case? If your teenager or grandchild is in court because of some stupid but illegal prank, do you want them to face a judge who is publicly tough on crime or would you hope for a judge who is fair?
A famous line in the Mosaic Code in Leviticus expresses it well: “You are not to pervert justice, either by favoring the poor or by subservience to the great. You are to administer justice to your fellow countrymen with strict fairness.”
As for state’s attorney, this is a position that calls for being competent not only to try tough cases, but just as important, to administer an office of 27 attorneys.
The state’s attorney determines what charges to bring in each case and what plea bargain to offer. He or she sets procedures for how strictly to prosecute minors who drink, people caught with small amounts of marijuana and domestic violence.
While the state’s attorney is the government prosecutor, once again, we want them to be fair to both the community and the defendant.
For example, we would not want the charges to be higher than reasonably justified so that innocent people can be enticed to plead guilty to a lesser charge nor would we want plea agreements to be so lenient that dangerous people can escape just punishment.
So just how can we make reasoned decisions on the judicial election?
First, avoid voting on political views. They should be free from political views to be able to consider every case in front of them based on the law involved and the situation, not on previous political and moral perspectives. So for voting purposes, I suggest checking the website for each candidate’s past experience and qualifications, including any assessments by those in the justice system.
For example, the McLean County Bar Association has surveyed its attorneys; their evaluations on current judges are (or will be soon) available on the nonpartisan League of Women Voters website (www.lwvmclean.org).
It’s harder to judge between two candidates when one has never been a judge and the other currently is a judge because there is information on the judge’s judicial performance that is not available for someone who has never served as in that capacity. But still, voters should check all experience and qualifications for both.
Listening to debates and forums is helpful, as well as reading letter to the editor to see what knowledgeable people write in support of the candidates.
Regarding the candidates for state’s attorney, you won’t find bar association ratings, but you can do much of the same as mentioned above: check the Intenet for their qualifications, including education and training, watch forums, read letters to the editor with an eye toward focusing on knowledgeable writers, read The Pantagraph endorsements, which are based on thorough interviews, and any other endorsements, such as the McLean County Farm Bureau Political Involvement Committee, and candidate information on the League of Women Voters website.
Sorting through this information can take a little time, but the information is available, and the results of these elections are crucial to keeping a high quality of justice in McLean County.
Laurie Bergner of Normal is with the League of Women Voters of McLean County.