By Jayette Bolinski | Illinois Watchdog
SPRINGFIELD – Voters take note: judicial elections matter.
That’s according to observers around the country who monitor judicial elections and the influence of campaign spending on the courts.
Chances are a judge has touched your life or the life of a loved one in some way, they say, and that’s why it’s important for voters to research judicial candidates — whether they serve on the U.S. Supreme Court or a local circuit court — before heading to the polls.
Take, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling that upheld President Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Or, closer to home, how was your last run-in with a judge over a speeding ticket?
“The reality is it was judges who determined the legality and future of (Obamacare), and that ruling by the Supreme Court had an impact on every single person in the country,” said Travis Akin, director of the watchdog group Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch.
“The power of the judicial branch cannot be underestimated, in my view. I think people need to understand that judges carry a lot of weight, and we need to make sure the people serving are doing their job.”
According to IllinoisJudges.net, a project of the Illinois Civil Justice League, a group that works for fairness in the civil justice system, dozens of judicial seats throughout Illinois are on Nov. 6 ballot. That includes the Illinois Supreme Court and seats in appellate, circuit and subcircuit courts.
Some candidates are on the ballot for the first time, and others are seeking retention — a chance to serve an additional set number of years as a judge.
- Incumbent Illinois Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis, a Democrat appointed to a two-year term in 2010 to Justice Thomas Fitzgerald’s seat, is running against Republican James Riley, a circuit judge from Cook County. If Theis loses, the partisan split of the court flips to favor Republicans.
- Illinois Supreme Court Justice Rita Garman, a Republican, was elected to a 10-year term on the court in 2002 and this year is on the ballot for retention.
Other judicial ballot matters are more heated. Citizens for Judicial Integrity, a grassroots organization “dedicated to restoring judicial integrity to Madison County, Ill.,” is against the retention of four judges in the Third Judicial Circuit Court in Madison County – which has been dubbed part of Illinois’ “judicial hell hole.” The group, backed by the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, opposes the retention of judges David Hylla, John Knight, Barbara Crowder and Ann Callis, citing large donations from asbestos lawyers and an increase in asbestos-related court filings in Madison County.
“The citizens and voters of Madison County need to be relieved of the burden of the reputation of this county for being anti-business, where companies are shaken down in the courthouse,” Illinois Chamber of Commerce president Doug Whitley told the Madison Record, an online legal journal in the Metro East, earlier this month.
Attorneys surveyed for the Illinois State Bar Association for its judicial evaluations, though, indicated the four Madison County judges are suitable for retention, which requires approval from a three-fifths majority of voters.
Such disputes are an example of why it’s important for voters to weigh in on judicial elections, said Eeva Moore, spokeswoman for Justice At Stake, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that focuses on maintaining fairness and impartiality in courts.
“The big challenge is that people have the question, Does this relate to their daily lives in any immediate sense,” she said. “However, the courts impact people’s lives on a daily basis. What’s happened is you have a vacuum of people not voting as much or dropping off when they reach the judicial section of the ballot. And in many states we see special interests step in to fill that void.”
Like all other political races, judge candidates may accept political donations and party backing. That means voters have to learn how to follow the money.
“Generally, (the special interests) are folks from all sides of the political spectrum, and it varies from state to state. And generally where we see campaign contributions are from organizations that expect to appear before the court and they want to curry favor,” Moore said.
“That doesn’t mean judges always respond to that, by any stretch of the imagination. But that’s the environment it creates. And it’s a bipartisan issue.”
Another difficulty for voters in judicial elections is trying to determine where candidates stand on issues. There isn’t much information available. At best, judges up for retention have a record of ruling on cases. But candidates typically aren’t free to say how they might rule on particular issues.
“They have to be very sensitive that they don’t come in with any kind of bias. They have to be impartial as much as possible. It’s not like legislative or executive-type candidates,” Akin said. “You don’t have a lot to go on to make a decision. So it’s very difficult for voters to understand the process, and it’s not a wonder so few people actually follow through and vote in judicial elections.”
So, should judges even be elected, given the opaque nature of their campaigns? Sure, Akin said, noting, however, that it would be beneficial to have an independent judicial panel of some sort that could review candidates and weigh in on their qualifications or a merit selection panel that could help ensure candidates running for judge actually have the right temperament and qualifications for the job.
Until then, it’s up to voters to do their homework. Some suggestions:
- Illinoisjudges.net – An Illinois Civil Justice League site that enables Illinois voters to learn about judges and candidates for judicial officers.
- VoteforJudges.org – A site that offers non-partisan information about all judicial candidates in Cook County.
- The Illinois State Bar Association’s judicial evaluations and advisory polls — The state bar association, a professional organization for Illinois’ lawyers, has a judicial evaluations committee that rates candidates after reviewing their background, qualifications and a detailed questionnaire from the candidates. The organization also polls attorneys about candidates seeking retention.
- Judgepedia.org – An interactive encyclopedia of judicial candidates and races all over the country that cites various news articles and other sources of information.
- Good old Google. Voters can find out a lot just by running a candidate’s name through Google or another search engine.
“The bottom line is there is a no one-stop shopping when it comes to finding this information. You have to dig for it,” Akin said. “And while we challenge people to do their homework, we’re very much aware that not a whole lot of people are going to do that before they go to the polls.”