Cook County voters will cast ballots next March in a Democratic primary that pits two-term incumbent State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez against a pair of formidable challengers.
Despite backing from powerful Chicago Democrats, Alvarez faces Kim Foxx and Donna More in a race that’s already generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. As former chief of staff to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Foxx also has hefty political backing. More is a corporate lawyer. The primary winner likely will be heavily favored to win in a general election that determines the top prosecutor in one of the biggest U.S. court systems.
The Better Government Association recently published a series of stories about Alvarez that, among other things, examined political aspects of her office. The controversies during Alvarez’s tenure include her resistance to reopen an investigation into a 2004 death at the hands of a nephew of former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. Critics also point to Alvarez’s reluctance to review wrongful conviction claims despite the fact Chicago cops spent decades forcing suspects’ confessions with torture.
“I have to make decisions every day that might not be popular,” Alvarez acknowledged to a meeting of Cook County Democratic Party leaders in August. She was seeking their endorsement in her upcoming primary.
Several sources told the BGA that the position of state’s attorney is too political.
While arguments can be made for continuing the widespread practice of electing state’s attorneys, consider the alternative.
Most local prosecutors are elected across the country, but it’s different in Connecticut, where a committee of judges and lawyers picks the state’s attorneys – a process that supporters say takes much of the politics out of the job. Prosecutors can focus on criminal justice without political considerations, the thinking goes. Each of the 13 state’s attorneys in Connecticut is appointed to eight-year terms.
In 1984, Connecticut voters approved an amendment to the state’s constitution that set up the panel to select prosecutors. Prior to the change, judges selected prosecutors, which itself was viewed as a potential conflict of interest.
“It has been a pretty well-respected system,” said George Coppolo, a Hartford, Conn., lawyer who spent more than 30 years as an attorney for the state’s General Assembly.
“I don’t remember any interest groups or good-government groups saying we should have an election instead,” said Coppolo, who left his job as chief attorney for the state legislature in 2009. “I don’t recall allegations of corruption or incompetence or undue influence.”
He adds: “Any system that’s devised can be corrupted but the Connecticut system, to my knowledge, has not been accused of that. I cringe a little bit at the thought of electing prosecutors.”
Elsewhere, neither New Jersey nor Alaska elect local prosecutors – those states appoint. In New Jersey, the governor appoints the state’s county prosecutors. In Alaska, the attorney general – who is appointed by the governor – names the state’s district attorneys. In Delaware, the elected attorney general appoints and oversees three county prosecutors.
“Connecticut is the least connected to any elected officers,” said David LaBahn, CEO of the Washington-based Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
The downside to that model, LaBahn said, is that the prosecutor’s position loses a voice to influence legislative or budgetary issues.
And, of course, voters theoretically have less control over who is in that position if it’s filled by appointment and they can’t vote for or against somebody.
Top federal prosecutors are appointed through a collaborative process, and northern Illinois ended up with good selections in recent years. But consider the Connecticut model, which takes political appointments out of the local prosecutor selection process.
With many things, the devil is in the details. But it’s worth a discussion.
This column was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Brett Chase, who can be reached at (312) 821-9033 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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