Nearly 16 years ago, two men with deep ties to Cook County politics used support from the county’s powerful Democratic Party organization to ascend to the highest court in the state, reports the Chicago Tribune. Today, Charles Freeman, a longtime friend of ex-Mayor Harold Washington, still sits on the Illinois Supreme Court. And the building that houses the court in Chicago is named in honor of the other man, Michael Bilandic, a former Chicago mayor himself. The selection this week of Anne Burke, wife of a powerful Chicago alderman, to the state’s highest court has drawn new public attention to the long-standing role of politics in the state’s judicial system.
The state’s Supreme Court has a rich tradition of political power players and connected lawyers finding their way to the state’s highest court. These range from Freeman and Bilandic to Seymour Simon, a former ally of Mayor Richard J. Daley before he became an independent, and Ben Miller, a well-known central Illinois Republican when he joined the court. But under the state’s system, citizens–and those who come before the court–have to trust that the state’s top judges can be impartial even though they are elected in a partisan contest and must stand before voters every 10 years to seek retention on a nonpartisan ballot.