Costly judicial retention race winds down in Illinois

Ann Maher Oct. 28, 2010, 2:21pm



SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (Legal Newsline)- As one of the most expensive single-candidate campaigns winds down in Illinois, Justice Thomas Kilbride's chief detractor defends his group's anti-retention effort.

Ed Murnane, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League (ICJL), said that Illinois voters did not put any conditions on retention campaigns when the system of selecting judges was enacted by voters nearly 30 years ago.

"It's not the best system and it should be changed but it is what the voters approved," he said.

ICJL's political action committee, which has attacked Kilbride's record on jobs, crime and his vote to overturn the state's medical malpractice law, has raised more than $670,000 mainly from business interests in an effort to oust Kilbride from office.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which owns this publication, contributed $150,000 to the anti-retention campaign.

Murnane has called Kilbride "hostile" to business and medical communities and a "very staunch ally of personal injury lawyers."

"He's the most in support of expanding liability lawsuits," Murnane has said.

In the meantime, Kilbride, whose major donors are plaintiff lawyers, unions and the state Democratic party, has raised nearly $2.5 million.

Kilbride's defenders have called the anti-retention effort unfair.

"The special interest groups trying to oust incoming Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court Tom Kilbride in his retention election pose a direct threat to fairness and impartiality of all Illinois judges," says the Illinois Judges Association. "Through the use of deceptive and slick marketing, those sullying Justice Tom Kilbride are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for their own ideological and political ends at the expense of the touchstone of the American legal system - a judiciary independent of all influences and interests."

The money raised by both sides has helped rank the contest as the second most expensive one-person judicial race in the country. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and the Justice at Stake Campaign, last week called the total spending "extraordinary" for a retention election, where only incumbents appear on the ballot and voters decide whether to grant another term.

"The fact that we elect judges on a partisan basis in Illinois -- a highly partisan state -- suggests that the only way to remove them is through the current retention process," Murnane said. "A better one would be to limit terms to four years -- as we do with other offices -- and have judges run in contested elections.

"If we're going to have judges be so involved in the political process -- Justice Kilbride has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Democratic Party of Illinois -- we should consider allowing an opponent run against him. That way, it wouldn't be the world against Justice Kilbride, but candidate Jones against Justice Kilbride and let the voters decide.

"Since we don't have that kind of system, let's not deny the voters the opportunity to say 'we think this judge should be removed; we want to elect a new one next time around.'"

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

Cindi Canary, director for the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said that in retention elections, as in elections with more than one candidate choice, candidates should attempt to balance short-term objectives of winning a seat on the bench or removing a judge with concerns about the integrity of the judicial system.

"Too often political operatives on all sides are so concerned about their immediate objectives that they give no thought to the destruction that they leave in their wake," she said.

"If the public doesn't believe that judges look to the law to inform their decisions, if they think that rulings are greased by contributions or if campaign advertising simply leads the public to a fundamental misunderstanding about the role of the judicial system, public confidence in the fairness of the judicial system can be destroyed."

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