Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) is running for judge of the Cook County Circuit Court’s 11th Subcircuit, which spans much of northwestern Chicago and several western and southwestern suburbs. If elected, his seat will become vacant for the last six months of his term.
While judicial elections tend to fly under the radar, circuit court judges preside over a wide range of legal proceedings, including divorce filings, traffic tickets, child custody hearings and criminal cases, among other things.
Once elected, judges may be appointed to a specific region or serve countywide. The current circuit court system was designed to make sure that all parts of the county, particularly minority communities, get a chance to elect judges that represent them.
Taliaferro, who has been a lawyer since 2007, said that serving as a judge would be the culmination of his legal career. He said that as an African American who has experience representing communities like Austin, he would bring something valuable to the courts.
The election comes as the fate of the new ward boundaries that would take effect during the 2023 city election remain uncertain. If elected judge, Taliaferro would face a new map when he runs for retention. The alderman said he’s currently focused on getting elected to the new role by winning the
June 28 Democratic Primary and the Nov. 8 general election.
If the alderman wins the Primary, he’ll likely win the general election by default. Currently, there are no candidates who have registered to run as Republican or Independent. Taliaferro said that if he does win the Primary, he’ll reach out to several area stakeholders to help him choose someone to replace him as alderman. Mayor Lori Lightfoot will be responsible for appointing the replacement, but past Chicago mayors have tended to defer to the alderperson’s wishes.
The 11th Subcircuit includes most of Austin north of North Avenue, including Galewood, and much of Chicago immediately north of it.
In the suburbs, it includes Oak Park, about half of Proviso Township, including most of Maywood, and portions of several northwestern suburbs. According to the Illinois Supreme Court’s official website, the 11th Subcircuit has been vacant since 2020, when Judge Dennis McGuire declined to run for retention.
The winner of the election will take office on Dec. 10, 2022 and serve for six years. At that point, voters will decide on whether or not to retain the judge, but instances when voters chose not to retain a judge have been rare. If he’s elected judge and decides to run for retention, Taliaferro would be running in a newly mapped Subcircuit whose boundaries were approved earlier this year. The map won’t take effect until 2024. By then, the new 11th Subcircuit would not include Proviso Township, but would keep Oak Park and Galewood.
According to the Illinois State Board of Elections, the only other candidate running for the Democratic nomination is Aileen Bhandari, of Portage Park, who has prosecuted cases for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office since 2002. Most recently, she served as a supervisor of the office’s Community Justice Center.
In 2020, she ran for one of the at-large circuit court judge seats, but she got the lowest number of votes out of the four candidates in that year’s Democratic primary, getting 20% of the vote.
Taliaferro served as a police officer in Austin’s 15th and 25th police districts before he was first elected alderman in 2015. In 2003, he began attending what was then known as John Marshall Law School. After graduating in 2007, Taliaferro served as an attorney at the Nexus Legal Group.
Taliaferro said that he has long wanted to be a judge even before he attended law school, because he was mentored by a judge early in his career. After being a police officer and an attorney, he said, going into a profession that approaches the justice system “from another lens” was a logical next step and “a pinnacle of the legal profession.”
During his Feb 16 monthly community meeting, Taliaferro said that he gets choked up thinking about leaving his City Council seat.
“I love, with all my heart, to be an alderman, and it wasn’t an easy decision for me,” he said.
In a recent interview, Taliaferro said that his past experience, including his experience as an alderman, would be an asset to the court.
“I believe that, when we look at the legal system, the judicial system in Cook County, I can say that I firmly beehive that I would love to continue carrying out the tradition of integrity, transparency and certainly one of compassion and being able to understand some of the people that will come before the court, and come before me as a judge,” he said.
Taliaferro added that he would be the first Black judge in the 11th Subcircuit, a reality that he said is important, given that Proviso Township and Austin have large Black populations.
His election would also improve the circuit court’s diversity. According to a Sept. 15, 2021 Injustice Watch report, only 20% of all Circuit Court judges are black. In comparison, the county is about 25% black.
The election of Bhandari, who has Filipino and Indian roots, would also add to the court’s diversity. According to the same article, only 3% of Circuit Court judges are Asian.
Taliaferro said that he respects Bhandari’s accomplishments and that he hopes that they would have a respectful race.
“I’ve met Ms. Bhandari, I believe, a couple of times,” he said. “I don’t know her very well, but I’m sure that Ms. Bhandari is very well-qualified.”
Taliaferro resigned as 29th Ward Democratic committeeperson on March 7, because election law doesn’t allow judicial candidates to have positions within political party organizations. The commiteepeople coordinate party campaigning efforts and take part in filling most political vacancies. Taliaferro said that he won’t play any role in choosing his successor for Democratic committeeperson.