CHICAGO — Three weeks after Election Day, final tallies show that Cook County Circuit Judge Jackie Portman-Brown lost her retention bid by less than 12,000 votes, while Judge John Mahoney III held onto his seat by about 2,100 votes.
Officials in Chicago and suburban Cook County submitted Tuesday their final counts to the Illinois State Board of Elections, which will then certify the results Dec. 4.
Judges up for retention need 60% “yes” votes to keep their seats. This election marked the second in a row in which voters tossed a judge after not having done so for nearly three decades.
The current judicial term ends Dec. 7, after which the Illinois Supreme Court will fill Portman-Brown’s vacant seat. That judge can then run in the next primary election in 2022 to stay on the bench if they so choose.
Portman-Brown has been a judge since 2008. For years, she headed the HOPE court, a high-profile experimental program that aimed to keep defendants who struggled to comply with probation out of prison. The state cut funding for the court in 2018 following critical internal surveys and outside reviews by researchers and advocates that found the program rife with problems, some springing from Portman-Brown’s leadership. In one review by the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, court staff portrayed Portman-Brown as a vindictive bully who would at times punish offenders to spite attorneys with whom she was at odds.
Portman-Brown also raised eyebrows with her courtroom antics, which included ringing a cowbell once a defendant had paid off their fines and jiggling her keys at defendants to signify her ability to lock them up. She once called a defendant a “f—-r” after he used similar language to express his frustration with a ruling, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
“I am not your typical judge,” Portman-Brown said as CBS cameras rolled in her courtroom in 2016. “I’m like Santa. I’ve got a list, I check it twice, I know who’s naughty, I know who’s nice.”
“If you remain in violation of your probation from this day forward,” Portman-Brown told a defendant on camera, “I will lock you up. I will lock you up!”
In February, Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans reassigned Portman-Brown to administrative duty — also known as “judge jail” — after a video showed her locking up a child relative in a holding cell behind her courtroom for several minutes.
Portman-Brown will join former Judge Matthew Coghlan as the only two judges to lose a retention bid since 1990. Former Cook County Judge Mauricio Araujo also garnered less than 60% “yes” votes in this month’s election, but he had already retired in October following a disciplinary hearing that substantiated allegations that he had sexually harassed several women while on the job.
Mahoney, Martin, Toomin and Wadas eek out wins
Historically, judges in Cook County have comfortably won their retention races with an average of about 76% “yes” votes. But this year, four judges won their races by slim margins.
Mahoney, a judge since 2014, finished with 60.1% “yes” votes, the only judge in the last 30 years to keep their seat with under 1% of the vote, according to an Injustice Watch analysis of election data. The Illinois State Bar Association did not recommend Mahoney for retention following concerns from attorneys about his “arrogance and a lack of sensitivity to diversity issues.” Mahoney serves at the Bridgeview courthouse in the Southwest suburbs.
In this year’s most-watched retention race, Judge Michael Toomin won retention with about 62% “yes” votes. Left-leaning judicial groups and the Cook County Democratic Party mounted a campaign to oust Toomin, who heads the county’s juvenile justice court. Toomin’s camp said efforts to kick him off the bench were motivated by politics and not his judicial performance.
Mahoney and Toomin kept their seats thanks to voters in the suburbs, as they were under the 60% threshold in Chicago but made up the difference outside the city.
Judge Patricia Martin, who has presided over the county’s child protection division since 2000, also ended with 62% “yes” votes. Martin has said she plans to retire at the end of this judicial term.
In another closely watched retention race, Judge Kenneth Wadas kept his seat after garnering 66% “yes” votes. An Injustice Watch investigation from October found that the Illinois Appellate Court had reversed 25 rulings issued by Wadas since 2014, nearly twice as many as the combined total of the other five criminal judges who ran for retention this year.