St. Clair County Associate Judge Laninya Cason has filed an amended complaint with the Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board against her opponent in next month’s circuit judge race.
Cason claims her opponent Associate Judge Zina Cruse has engaged in an additional 15 ethical violations since her original complaint accused Cruse of improperly presiding over cases in which her campaign manager, Belleville divorce attorney Charles Courtney, represented one of the parties.
Cason switched political affiliation from Democrat to Republican after a falling out with party leaders earlier this year. The county Democratic committee endorsed Cruse over Cason, and both candidates ran unopposed in the March primary election.
The Oct. 1 amended complaint asks that Cruse “be removed or at the very least be suspended from the bench without pay for engaging in conduct which places the judiciary in disrepute.”
“St. Clair County has made great strides to improve its reputation in the legal community after being dubbed a judicial hellhole for the past 10 years,” the complaint states.
“Judge Cruse has only been on the bench for three years and if she is disregarding the Codes and Canons of the judiciary in such a vociferous manner at such an early stage in her judicial career, she should not be given the esteemed opportunity to continue representing the citizens of this Circuit.”
Cruse and Courtney have not returned phone messages seeking comment.
Cason filed the original complaint on Aug. 29, citing six instances of alleged misconduct.
She relies on Illinois judicial ethics opinion 96-20 as the basis for her complaint. “A judge is disqualified from hearing any matters during the course of an election campaign in which one of the parties is represented by the judge’s campaign chairman,” the opinion states.
In an interview Oct. 5, Cason said the problem with Cruse presiding over cases where her campaign manager is representing one of the parties is that it gives the appearance of impropriety.
“The election cycle is so short,” she said. “If you can’t give a continuance to avoid the appearance of impropriety, that’s kind of green.”
St. Clair County Chief Judge John Baricevic has been contacted for comment, but did not immediately return a phone call.
Cason has served as an associate judge since early 2003. Then at age 31, she was one of the youngest sitting judges in the state.
She said that it has been “an uphill battle” since.
“A lot of lawyers did not appreciate that I was young, African American and female,” she said.
“I wasn’t part of the Belleville Democratic machine.”
Cason also said that in spite of a lot of hard work, dedication and accomplishment on the bench, her efforts have not been appreciated.
“I have not been appreciated by the powers that be,” she said.
In explaining why she is the better candidate, Cason touts her experience presiding over traffic, small claims, family, domestic violence, probate, tax and child support dockets. She also holds up her experience in presiding over cases in all five counties in the circuit, and her experience in presiding over major civil and felony jury trials.
Cason also takes credit for having written a local probate rule related to guardianships that was adopted in the 20th Circuit. She said the rule corrected a practice of issuing temporary guardianships without statutory authority.
Before serving as a judge, Cason was a law partner at Hinshaw & Culbertson in Belleville, where she worked as a defense lawyer and participated in jury trials.
She said the decision of the St. Clair County Democratic organization to endorse “a lesser qualified” candidate over her greater qualifications was based on politics.
Regarding her decision to leave the Democratic Party and join the GOP, Cason cautiously remarked, “We had a difference of opinion as to the role politics plays in the judiciary.”
She said she was “very reticent” about leaving the Democratic Party when the “rest of my race is primarily Democratic for whatever reason.”
But she pointed to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King as Republican examples that made her decision easier.
“I was angry that I was forced to make the move and leave the rest of the race and my President,” she said.
In the end, she decided in the “interest of justice” she would change parties.
“I am a judge, that’s what I do,” she said.
As far as the upcoming election, Cason said she expects to fare well throughout the five counties within the 20th Circuit. She also said she expects to get votes in the city of East St. Louis, where voters historically favor Democratic candidates by large margins.
“I am a native,” she said. “East St. Louis is home.”
She said she is a credible candidate to East St. Louis voters because she does community service work in the city and because her family name is known for “fighting for what they believe in.”
Cason said she was not surprised by the Illinois State Bar Association poll in which she was rated “not recommended.”
“I knew they would use numbers to assassinate me,” she said. “If numbers is all they have they’re dead in the water.”
Cruse was rated “recommended” in the poll taken of local lawyers.