Money is a big reason why 2010 judicial races in Madison and St. Clair counties are uncontested, according to a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for circuit judge in Madison County in 2006.
“Rich fat cat trial lawyers have a system they want and they will spend unlimited amounts of money to be certain the system stays the way they like it,” said attorney Don Weber, a former judge who was appointed to the bench after Circuit Judge Phillip Kardis retired in 2005 before the end of his term.
In the Third and Twentieth Judicial Circuits, which encompass Madison and St. Clair counties, there are two open circuit court seats in next year’s general election.
So far, Democratic candidates have filed candidacy papers for those slots, but no Republicans.
Weber said that besides the huge amount of money it takes to run a campaign, challengers aren’t stepping forward because of the “vicious and vindictive” treatment they could expect.
He said it takes “extraordinary courage and conviction” to run against a Democrat in Madison County.
“You have to be a lawyer to run for judge,” he said. “And, you have to make a living. A Republican candidate can’t just say what he thinks. If he does, he is savaged. His integrity is attacked, his family is attacked.
“It’s not so simple,” he said. “They’re risking their livelihood.”
In 2006, Weber lost his campaign to Dave Hylla, a Democrat, who won by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent.
During the campaign, Weber raised more than $230,000, a little more than half of which came from a single source, the political action committee of the Illinois Civil Justice League – JUSTPAC.
Hylla raised more than $496,000, most of which came from local asbestos and personal injury lawyers and firms. Asbestos firm SimmonsCooper and its lawyers contributed at least $184,000 to Hylla’s campaign.
Even an asbestos plaintiff, Luke Lindau of the Chicago area, contributed $200 to Hylla’s campaign. Lindau, who was represented in Madison County by Texas attorney Scott Hendler, won a $4 million settlement in 2004. Hendler’s co-counsel was Mike Bilbrey of Hylla’s then Edwardsville firm, Bilbrey & Hylla.
Other circuit court races in 2006 were not as costly, but resemble the Hylla-Weber race in terms of spending and vote margins.
In Madison County, Barbara Crowder, a Democrat, defeated James Hackett, a Republican, by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent. Crowder’s campaign raised more than $155,000 to Hackett’s more than $62,000.
In St. Clair County in 2006, where Circuit Judge Lloyd Cueto, a Democrat, ran for election rather than retention, Cueto won by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent for Republican Paul Evans.
Cueto’s campaign raised $156,465 to Evans’ $68,460.
Uncontested races ‘probably not healthy’
A political analyst interviewed by the Record said that if judicial elections are going to be partisan, they ought to be competitive.
Even though he favors a merit-based judicial selection system, David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, said it’s “probably not healthy” for only one candidate to appear on the ballot in an election.
Yepsen said uncompetitive races deny choices for voters.
He also said that in Democratic-leaning areas where races are expensive, “Republicans are not going to waste their time on suicide missions.”
Yepsen, who said it is also “unhealthy” for judges to have to raise money, favors campaign finance limits under a partisan election system.
“When judges have to go out and raise money…and then those people end up in their court, you can’t tell me money doesn’t have influence,” he said.
In August, Madison County Circuit Judge Daniel Stack, a Democrat, announced he would retire by the end of his current term in December 2010. The following month, Madison County State’s Attorney Bill Mudge, a Democrat, announced his intention to run for Stack’s seat.
In St. Clair County, Circuit Judge Annette Eckert, a Democrat, also announced her retirement last month. St. Clair County Associate Judge Michael Cook has indicated he would seek Eckert’s open seat as a Democrat.
Madison County Republican Central Committee Chairman Don Metzler of Collinsville said there have been “ongoing discussions about slating offices” and possibly the circuit judge open seat.
Weber said that Republicans have to come up with a new strategy to figure out how to take advantage of a “solid 45-48 percent” voter base in coming elections.