At long last, we finally have an answer.
Readers will be forgiven for not paying close attention to the Cook County Sheriff Democratic primary, but it serves as a handy test case for a new law, challenged nearly all the way up to the Illinois Supreme Court.
In February, I wrote about a clause in the 2021 criminal justice reform legislation requiring anyone who wants to run for sheriff first be a certified law enforcement officer. Unlike other contested portions of that 700-page omnibus package, the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association asked to include the provision.
On the surface level, this makes a lot of sense. It’s not unlike demanding a state’s attorney candidate be an actual lawyer. But legal battles are not won on the surface, and answering the question of what constitutes certification as a law enforcement officer wasn’t simple.
Carmen Navarro Gercone became a Cook County deputy in 1994 and worked for the sheriff’s office for 26 years. She reached the title of first assistant executive director for court services, managing more than 1,300 employees, most of whom were sworn officers. She graduated from the FBI National Academy in 2013 and continues to serve on its local board of directors. Since 2020 she’s been Cook County Circuit Court’s executive clerk for court operations and administrations.
But crucially, Navarro Gercone never completed the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board’s certification process, and her FBI National Academy experience doesn’t qualify as an official equivalent. The Board denied her request for certification or a waiver and the Cook County Electoral Board tossed her from the ballot. Although a Cook County judge put her back on, a state appellate court undid that decision and the state Supreme Court declined to hear her appeal.
That much of this happened after printing and distribution of ballots is its own special degree of frustrating, and with respect to Navarro Gercone’s personal frustration, there at least is something official on the record for future candidates in the other 101 counties.
The fundamental flaw rests with the General Assembly for approving a certification clause as a threshold to ballot access without clearly delineating requirements. That paved the way for courtroom arguments over how much power the county electoral board could our should delegate to the state standards board and ultimately leaves voters without the ability to support someone who has spent the bulk of her professional life working important jobs in the office she hoped to lead.
If lawmakers want to ensure their vague requirement legitimately benefits public safety, they need to pass trailer legislation explicitly defining acceptable certification. Failing to do so in light of Navarro Gercone’s saga would represent a further dereliction of duty.