When she began working as a prosecutor for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office, Aileen Bhandari noticed something.
“When I first got into the courtroom, I didn’t see judges that look like me,” she said, adding that the lack of minority judges prompted her to think about her own judicial aspirations.
Bhandari, who has an Indian father and a Filipina mother knew then that she wanted to become a Cook County Circuit Court judge, but she also knew that she had to get enough legal experience to qualify. So, she spent almost two decades working her way up through the State’s Attorney’s office.
In 2020, Bhandari ran for one of the at-large seats, coming in last out of the four candidates. She reflected that trying to campaign across all of Cook County was more challenging than she expected, so this year, she’s aiming smaller, running for 11th subcircuit judge against 29th Ward Ald. Chris Taliaferro in the Democratic primary election on June 28. Since there are no Republican candidates and no independent candidates filed to run, the winner of the primary will most likely win the general election on Nov. 8.
Bhandari said that her legal experience and her time working at a Community Justice Center will be valuable assets in the court. Community Justice Centers are operated by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office and provide an array of community-based services, including youth violence prevention programs and informational seminars.
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 county-wide.
Candidates run for either at-large or subcircuit seats, with the subcircuits carved out to ensure that all parts of the county, particularly minority communities, get a chance to elect judges that represent them.
The 11th Subcircuit currently 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, and serve for six years. After the judge is elected, voters get to decide on whether or not to retain the judge. Instances of voters deciding not to retain a judge are rare.
Whoever wins the 11th subcircuit election will have to run for retention under a different map, which, though approved earlier this year, won’t take effect until 2024. The new 11th subcircuit will not include Proviso Township, but Oak Park and Galewood will remain in its boundaries.
Bhandari graduated from the DePaul School of Law in 2002. She already interned at the State’s Attorney’s office, so becoming a prosecutor was a logical step. Bhandari started out with child support cases. After working in the Domestic Violence division, she went to prosecute misdemeanor cases before going into Felony Review, serving as one of the legal professionals who decides whether the felony case has enough evidence to go to trial.
“Domestic violence is still very near and dear to me,” Bhandari said. “I continue volunteer in domestic violence shelters.”
Most recently, she became the head of Community Justice Center West, 2650 S. California Ave., one of the four Community Justice Centers set up to serve Chicago and the suburbs.
According to the program website, the centers “collaborate and partner with police, businesses, faith based organizations, elected officials, schools, government entities, social service agencies and community groups” to “not only to prosecute cases but to solve public safety problems, prevent crime and improve the quality of life for communities.”
Bhandari said that the West Center’s coverage area includes Oak Park and much of the West Side.
In 2019, she was one of the 30 finalists for an open Associate Judge position. Unlike Circuit Court judges, Associate Judges are appointed by Circuit Court judges based on legal records and feedback from legal professionals. While Bhandari wasn’t one of the 15 finalists who got appointed, the consideration gave her more confidence to make a run for judge.
“It’s just an honor to be nominated,” she said. “That’s a signal to me that the presiding judges found me qualified enough to be on the short list.
Bhandari said that, aside from wanting to do her part to make the court better reflect Cook County’s population, she was inspired to become a judge because of her mentors. Bhandari also described it as a logical next step for someone who has worked in public service all her life.
“If elected, I think it’s a job of a judge to be very impartial,” she said. “I will always maintain integrity, apply the laws and the facts that are there. I hope to serve people with integrity and compassion and use my experience to make it a fair process.”