Cook County Judge Candidate Fights Residency ‘Problem’

Chicago lawyer’s candidacy was in jeopardy earlier this year after a question about where he actually lives.

Top: Richardson rented a house in Brainerd prior to filing papers with election officials. House photos by Casey Toner. Photo of Richardson from www.richardson4judge.com.

In the months leading up to filing day, Chicago lawyer Travis Richardson did a variety of things to run for Cook County judge.

Renting a house in the Brainerd neighborhood, he changed his driver’s license as well as auto and voter registrations to reflect the place he now called home — about a mile and a half from his Beverly house for the past 14 years, a residence he still owned and where the rest of his family still lived.

But when an elections official asked late last year whether Richardson had talked with his wife about selling their Beverly home, Richardson said “no,” an answer that briefly appeared to jeopardize the lawyer’s candidacy.

The hearing officer, who was considering whether Richardson was eligible to run following challenges to his nominating paperwork, said the “no” answer was a “crucial problem” and recommended the lawyer’s name be removed from the March 15 primary ballot because he questioned whether the candidate truly intended to leave the home he owned and where his family remained. Richardson was not divorced, separated or estranged from his wife, the hearing officer wrote.

While residency controversies have arisen among other judicial elections in recent years — particularly when candidates rent apartments and also maintain homes — the Richardson hearing adds a new wrinkle: If the intent to move from a longtime home isn’t clear, how can judges actually claim they live where they preside?

Speaking generally about the issue, Chicago attorney Richard Means, former chairman of the Chicago Bar Association’s Election Law Committee, said, “It is important that the judge at least have genuine and not artificial — not contrived and not manufactured — ties to the community so that the community views can make a small part in his decision making.”

Travis Richardson

Travis Richardson

Richardson’s campaign wasn’t in limbo for long — it was only a matter of days after the recommendation to remove Richardson’s name from the ballot until an elections group ruled in his favor. On a 2-1 vote, the County Officers Electoral Board, a government panel that rules on disputes over candidates and rules, said in January that the hearing officer put too much weight on whether Richardson consulted with his wife.

Cook County Judge Margarita Kulys-Hoffman sealed the deal, upholding the board’s ruling in a decision last month.

Richardson faces three candidates Tuesday in a race to replace Cook County Second Subcircuit Judge Drella Savage, who retired last year. Celeste K. Jones, Chelsey R. Robinson and D. Renee Jackson also are running.

Created decades ago to help racially and politically diversify the field for local judges, there are 15 subcircuits in Cook County. Since Richardson didn’t live in the Second Subcircuit, which includes the far South Side and suburban Cook County, he had to establish a residence there to run.

By law, judges have to live in their subcircuit for their initial six-year term, said Illinois State Board of Elections general counsel Ken Menzel. But they can move once they get re-elected because their subsequent elections are voted on by all of Cook County, not just by voters in their subcircuit.

house

Judge candidate Travis Richardson has lived in his Beverly home (above) for more than 14 years.

Reached by phone, Richardson said he was busy meeting potential voters and hung up. He did not respond to subsequent phone calls, voicemails and messages left at his two residences.

James Nally, Richardson’s attorney in the electoral board hearings, said Richardson is “firmly committed with staying in the property” in Brainerd and is contemplating buying the home.

Richardson began renting the single-story, one-bathroom house after a vacancy opened up in the Second Judicial Subcircuit in late August 2015, according to a Jan. 17 report by electoral hearing officer Terence Flynn.

Richardson sleeps at the Brainerd home four to five nights a week, but stays “at least a plurality of the time” in the Beverly house, according to Flynn’s report.

Richardson’s opponents Jackson and Jones declined to comment, but Robinson said that she believes the law is clear when it comes to residency.

“You have to abandon one residence to live in another,” she said.

The dissenting member of the board ruling on Richardson’s candidacy also described the candidate as having “one foot” in the subcircuit where he was running and “one foot out.”

“Subcircuits exist to insure that judgeships are filled by bona fide residents of a specified area,” panel member Daniel P. Madden wrote. “The record shows that this Candidate suffers from divided loyalties.”

Of the four candidates, Richardson is the only one with a disciplinary record with the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission. In January 2008, the Illinois State Supreme Court censured him for keeping $23,138 in proceeds from a client without having a contract to do so, records show.

Nally noted that the censure doesn’t preclude Richardson from being a judge, adding that the Chicago Bar Association mentioned the admonishment in their voting guide and still listed Richardson as “qualified” for the post.

The bar association, of which Richardson is a member, rates candidates as “highly qualified,” “qualified” and “not recommended.”