This past August, around 100 people representing more than 50 community organizations gathered with public officials and legal experts at Chicago's Roosevelt University to discuss issues of equity and access in the Cook County court system. Asked to describe their community’s relationship with the court system in five words or less, attendees chose words including “fraught,” “opaque,” and “complicated."
For years, the court system has resisted public oversight, creating the conditions for corruption to fester, problematic judges to sit on the bench, and starkly unequal outcomes to be administered.
Injustice Watch, a seven-year-old, nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog, has helped to shine a light on the courts, its 400 judges, and the million-plus cases that are filed in Cook County every year. It is part of a growing cohort of small and midsize Chicago nonprofit newsrooms that are earning recognition for mission-driven work in the public interest. The Driehaus Foundation has supported Injustice Watch since 2019.
Injustice Watch's popular judicial voting guide is produced prior to every election cycle and summarizes the backgrounds of all judges seeking nomination to or retention on the courts. Profiles include lawsuits, past reversals, and disciplinary records, along with their bar association recommendations and endorsements, campaign finance information, and red flags such as controversies or scandals. Additional reporting tells some of these stories in greater detail.
For the general election, Injustice Watch distributed more than 125,000 print copies of the guide and partnered with more than 100 community organizations, churches, and businesses to distribute copies in every Chicago neighborhood. It also sent 4,000 copies to eligible voters in the Cook County Jail, and included the guide as an insert in 10 neighborhood and suburban newspapers. Hundreds of thousands more accessed the voter guide online.
Injustice Watch's voter guide and "Check Your Judges" engagement campaign have helped to drive an increase in voter interest and participation in Cook County judicial races over the past several years. Voter participation in recent judicial races has grown by about 20 percent since the guide's introduction. And in 2018, the first year the guide was available, voters ousted a scandal-plagued judge—the first defeat of a judge seeking retention in nearly 30 years.