What do you know about circuit judges? The last time I saw a circuit judge candidate on my ballot my answer would've been a shoulder shrug. It's one of those positions that we often see on our election ballots, but rarely see a contested election for, so it doesn’t always get a lot of consideration from voters. I have been guilty of this lack of attention. Truth is, there are many voters who will have the fortune of never appearing in front of one of them in a courtroom. But daily decisions made in these courtrooms affect our community as a whole so they are important to consider. The way judges are elected is different than other offices. Once a judge is a elected, they are on for a six-year term. If they want to continue on the bench, then they have to submit their names for the ballot so that they can be voted on for retention in that position, which they do unopposed. If they receive over 60% of the vote, then they can be retained. The only time you see an actual race between two candidates is if someone gives up their seat on the bench. Prior to this year’s election cycle, two circuit judges from District 6 retired. Randy Rosenbaum, previously a public defender, and Roger Webber, previously an associate judge, were appointed to fill those vacancies. Since they were not elected, they now have to be voted into office, and they are both being challenged, by Chad Beckett and Ramona Sullivan, respectively.
With this system of appointments and retention, you can see how changing the bench might be difficult. While I don’t doubt those in office are qualified, upstanding folks who are appointing qualified, upstanding folks, it can easily lend itself to a homogeneous group of judges.
It’s for that reason that I wanted to offer a platform for Ramona Sullivan, who is running for circuit judge to fulfill the vacancy left by Arnold Blockman. Her opponent is Roger Webber, who was appointed to fill the vacancy in 2016. She was kind enough to take a few moments to answer some questions about her background and why she decided to run.
Smile Politely: Tell me a little bit about your background, both personally and professionally.
Ramona Sullivan: Personal first: I grew up on a small family farm, where we raised crops and livestock. My parents sent all five of their children to the University of Illinois, and we got five bachelor degrees and three law degrees from the U of I. I married my college sweetheart, Lionel Williams, the summer after my first year of law school. Our first child was born the summer after my second year. When I was 9 months pregnant with our second child, Lionel died. I was a single parent for the next 10 years, a white woman with very limited income raising two mixed-race children, having experiences that opened my eyes to many truths about the world that I hadn't previously seen firsthand. The kids and I made it through the seemingly impossible years: My oldest son graduated from the Illinois Mathematics & Science Academy and the University of Illinois, my daughter graduated from Uni High and is now a freshman at the University of Illinois. I married Anthony Ortega in 2010, and we have a four-year-old son living at home with us.
Professionally: I worked my way through high school (detasseling and making pizzas), worked my way through college (waitressing at Mr. Steak), and worked my way through law school (waitressing at Mr. Steak, teaching Rhet 105 for the U of I, and clerking at Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance). I started my career as a legal aid attorney in Decatur, then transferred to Champaign after I was widowed. Funding cuts eliminated that job at the end of 2002, so I started working for the Champaign Public Defender's Office. For family reasons, I needed to return home to Edgar County in late 2006, so I worked in private practice in Paris for two years. I had a chance to return to Land of Lincoln in 2008, working in the Charleston office. I transferred back to Land of Lincoln's Champaign office in 2012. For family reasons, I returned to the Public Defender's Office in late 2015. My work history from Land of Lincoln includes extensive courtroom experience with civil cases, including family law, child custody, divorce, orders of protection, eviction, foreclosure, collections, just about any legal problem that doesn't involve the risk of jail. My work history from the Public Defender's Office includes extensive courtroom experience with criminal law, representing adults and juveniles, traffic, abuse and neglect, and just about any legal problem where a person is legally entitled to an attorney. In private practice, I did a lot of criminal and family law, and also real estate, wills, and many other kinds of cases. For several semesters, I taught law students about poverty law, domestic violence, and abuse and neglect and I frequently guest-lecture at the law school. I've been a leader in many area bar associations, including the long-time President of the Edgar County Bar and the Chair of the Illinois State Bar Association's statewide committee on Delivery of Legal Services, and roles with most bar associations in Central Illinois.
SP: What led you to pursue this office?
Sullivan: In my capacity as a person who appears in court on an almost daily basis, I want judges like me in the courtroom. I want judges who have a demonstrated commitment to public service and to access to justice, I want judges with my temperament, my patience and flexibility, I want judges with a variety of legal experiences and life experiences. I have applied for several vacancies that are filled by appointment and have always been rated as well qualified for positions, but I have never been considered by the judges who make the appointments. I am running for this vacancy because I could serve the community better in that position than I can in any other position, and the only way to open the door is an election.
SP: I think the office of circuit judge is one that folks unfortunately don't know a lot about. What exactly are we electing someone for?
Sullivan: Circuit judges make decisions for individual cases in the courtroom, and those decisions have rippling effects throughout the community, not just on the people directly involved. The circuit judges also select the 11 associate judges and every four years, and the circuit judges decide whether or not to reappoint associate judges. They also determine local court rules that apply to people throughout the circuit.
SP: The process of electing and retaining judges is somewhat confusing, and something else that a lot of people don't know about. Can you shed some light on this?
Sullivan: There are 14 circuit judge positions in the Sixth Circuit. A judge is elected for a six year term originally. Every six years, they appear on the ballot for "retention," but no one can run against them. Currently, all 14 of our circuit judges were appointed to the bench by other judges and identify with the Republican party. None of them actually won a contested general election. The last time voters had a chance to vote in a contested circuit-wide general election in this circuit was 1996. One reason that people don’t know about it is that voters have been shut out of the process for so long.
SP: One of the reasons I wanted to focus on your candidacy is because you are the only woman running, and there's currently only one other woman who is a circuit judge. Do you feel like this is a hard ceiling to crack so to speak? And why do you think that is?
Sullivan: I know many women who would be exceptional judges. Most of them repeatedly applied for judicial vacancies, but were repeatedly passed over and have given up. It is incredibly difficult for anyone who isn't already appointed to the bench by other judges to run for a vacancy when a spot is on the ballot. Heidi Ladd is the only woman out of 14 circuit judges. She was appointed to the bench and had been an associate judge for a few years when she ran for election. I don't think the judges consciously, intentionally overlook exceptional women to give advantages to male applicants. But appointing mostly men gives them the distinct advantage of being a sitting judge when running for election. I sincerely believe that we need people with diverse experiences in these positions, including women, mothers, single parents, and so many other underrepresented perspectives.
SP: The other reason I wanted to give you a platform here is because of your response to the News-Gazette's endorsements, and the pattern of "well this person is doing the job already, so..." How do you push back against that way of thinking? I imagine there are plenty of voters who follow that logic thinking well why wouldn't I just vote for the person who is already in the job?
Sullivan: We need elections to make sure that elected officials actually represent and reflect the people they serve. Unfortunately, people with power seem to appoint people who look like them and think like them. The system of appointments has resulted in 14 out of 14 circuit judges who are the same color and identify with the same political party. 13 out of 14 are men. The current circuit judges do not reflect the legal community in the Sixth Circuit, and they certainly don't reflect the people who come to court to resolve conflicts in the Sixth Circuit. My opponent is doing fine: I believe I would do better.
SP: Last, why is the circuit judge race something that we really need to pay attention to? How does the work you would be doing affect our community on a daily basis?
Sullivan: Judges make decisions every single day that affect the entire community. Who gets locked up, and for how long; who gets to raise children and whether anyone else gets to have a significant role in a child’s life; who gets possession of homes and other property; who gets protective orders and for how long; it’s probably impossible to fully grasp how these decisions affect the litigants, their families, their neighborhoods, their schools, their workplaces, all of us. We need judges who are committed to serving the community and promoting equal access to justice.
Follow the links to find out more about the Illinois judicial system and the Sixth Judicial Court of Illinois. To learn more about all of the candidates for District 6 Circuit Judge, the Champaign County Voters Alliance is an excellent resource.