Ill. retention election the most expensive of the decade

Jessica M. Karmasek Oct. 20, 2010, 6:20pm


SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (Legal Newline) - An Illinois Supreme Court race has become the nation's most expensive one-candidate retention election this decade, according to a public policy and law institute and a campaign group aimed at keeping courts fair.

With less than two weeks to Election Day, Illinois Justice Thomas L. Kilbride reported late Monday that he has raised nearly $2.1 million toward his reelection.

The Illinois Civil Justice League, which is urging voters to oust Kilbride, has raised $561,000 from July 1 through Monday.

The money explosion has been fueled by national business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, seeking to unseat the incumbent and state-based plaintiffs' lawyers hoping to retain him.

The U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform owns Legal Newsline.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and the Justice at Stake Campaign, in a joint news release on Tuesday, called the total -- more than $2.6 million -- "extraordinary" for a retention election, where only incumbents appear on the ballot and voters decide whether to grant another term.

Only one retention election, the 1986 race in which California Chief Justice Rose Bird was ousted, has cost more, the Brennan Center reported.

Kilbride must get at least 60 percent voter approval in the state's 3rd Judicial District -- a sometimes Republican-leaning district -- to be retained to a second 10-year term.

The Rock Island Democrat was one of four justices who voted in February to overturn the state's medical malpractice law and is the only one among those jurists facing voters who may hold him to account for that decision.

After the 4-2 court decision, which knocked down a 2005 state law that capped non-economic "pain and suffering" damages against hospitals and doctors, trial lawyers cheered. But the decision also made Kilbride a prime election target for the medical and business communities.

Ed Murnane, president of the pro-business Illinois Civil Justice League, said on 21 cases that would benefit employers and help create jobs in the state, Kilbride voted against the employers and against new jobs 21 times.

Backing Kilbride's opponents are the U.S. Chamber and the American Tort Reform Association, which have spent $150,000 and nearly $64,000, respectively, the center reported.

Pouring in $180,000 in the last week is the American Justice Partnership, a creation of the National Association of Manufacturers.

The Brennan Center reports Kilbride has received most of his money -- about $1.25 million of the $2.1 million he has raised -- from the Illinois Democratic Party. A big chunk of the party's contributions was made by lawyers and law firms, many of them plaintiffs' litigators, it said.

From July 1 through Oct. 3, the state party received $2.3 million in contributions from individuals and firms, not counting transfers from political action committees. Of the 33 contributions of $25,000 or more, 31 came from law firms, totaling more than $1.5 million, the center reported.

"We are seeing a dramatic expansion in spending by special interest groups, who want to hold judges to narrow, one-issue agendas, and not to the law and the Constitution," Charles Hall, a spokesman for the Justice at Stake Campaign, said in a statement.

"Americans believe that campaign cash buys special treatment at the courthouse, so this is a new threat to public confidence in our courts."

Kilbride also has dominated the airwaves, spending an estimated $882,500 on air time to reach viewers in his north-central Illinois district.

According to data compiled by TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG for the Brennan Center, Kilbride leads all spenders nationally on high-court TV ads in 2010.

If unseated, Kilbride would be replaced with an interim appointment, followed by a competitive partisan election in 2012.

Heavy spending also continues in a retention election in Iowa, where state and national groups are seeking to unseat three justices over a ruling that legalized same-sex marriage.

Groups for and against the justices' retention have reported spending a total of $656,000, despite a several-week lull in TV ads, the Brennan Center reported.

Including an additional $30,000 spent in a bid to unseat three Colorado justices, a total of about $3.3 million has been raised or spent on retention elections in 2010, it said Tuesday.

From 2000-2009, only $2.2 million was raised by candidates in such races nationally -- barely 1 percent of the nearly $207 million raised by all state high-court candidates, the center reported.

Adam Skaggs, counsel at the Brennan Center said in judicial elections, candidates typically have such low profiles that almost all advertising is done in the very last weeks before an election, making accurate predictions for the 2010 November election season difficult.

"Voters don't have nearly as much information about judicial candidates as they do about candidates for Congress or the state house, so television ads run in the very last weeks of the election season are crucial in introducing judicial candidates to voters," Skaggs said in a statement.

"In the two weeks before Election Day, voters in states with high court elections will see increased television advertising as judicial candidates make their case to voters and political parties and special interests seek to define the candidates they support or oppose."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at

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