System of Electing Judges in Illinois Too Broke to Fix

Monday, September 29, 2008
by Marc J. Lane

Reprint permission from the September 29, 2008 issue of Crain's Chicago Business.

Illinois' embattled Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his nemesis, House Speaker Michael Madigan, continue to earn voters' wrath for stymieing the legislative process. Now that newly seated American Bar Assn. President H. Thomas Wells Jr. has turned his attention to "big money and fiery rhetoric" in state judicial elections, some Illinois judges are soon likely to rouse their own fair share of public outrage.

It's no surprise that Mr. Wells is targeting the campaigns of state judges. In the last election cycle, a Supreme Court race in his home state of Alabama cost more than $7 million, an "obscene amount of money" by his reckoning, which threatens the fairness and impartiality of state courts.

But a 2004 contest for a seat on the Illinois Supreme Court holds the record. Lloyd Karmeier, then a Republican circuit court judge who had garnered $4.3 million in financial support from business interests, opposed then-appellate court Judge Gordon Maag, a Democrat to whom trial lawyers had contributed $4.2 million. Although both candidates had distinguished judicial careers, as gloves-off politicians they inexcusably bankrolled sleazy TV commercials falsely accusing each other of coddling torturers and pedophiles.

Mr. Karmeier, who won the election, had collected $350,000 in campaign contributions from people directly interested in insurer State Farm and its then-pending appeal of a $456-million claim against the company, and another $1 million from groups to which State Farm belonged or contributed. Once elected, he cast his vote with the court's majority to reverse the damage award against State Farm, prompting the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in an editorial, to observe that, "Although Mr. Karmeier is an intelligent and no doubt honest man, the manner of his election will cast doubt on every vote he casts in a business case."

Judicial elections in Illinois are tainted by politics, special pleading and ideology, but money may control the outcome. Consider state Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke's 2008 election. According to the non-partisan Justice at Stake Campaign, Justice Burke raised contributions totaling $1.7 million, only to refund much of it after her war chest scared away all challengers.

Illinois is one of 39 states to elect at least some of their judges, a costly arms race that citizens are bound to lose. That's why Mr. Wells, who recognizes the organized bar's important role in championing fair and impartial state courts, is convening a summit to start a national dialogue about judicial independence.

It's clear that Illinois' system of electing judges is irreparably broken. If the state judiciary is to overcome the widespread suspicion that the biggest donor -- not the best case -- wins, the state constitution needs to be amended so judges are appointed on their merit by a non-partisan commission, not anointed by affluent elites.

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©2008 by Crain Communications Inc.

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