In less than two weeks, voters in Madison and Bond counties will decide who fills a vacancy at the Third Judicial Circuit.
The candidates who seek election to the unexpired term of Ann Callis, who stepped down last year to run for Congress, both tout their experience as reason for voter approval.
St. Jacob attorney John Barberis, Republican, responded to a questionnaire that the Illinois Civil Justice League posed to judicial candidates. It was published last week.
Associate Judge Clarence Harrison, Democrat, sat down with the Record this week to discuss his campaign.
Harrison, who has served as an associate judge for 15 years, seeks election to the circuit court seat so he can be in a position where he can participate in discussions about various advances in the law and court procedures, such as electronic filing.
“I’d like to be involved in those processes,” he said. “I’d like to see those are handled in a way so everyone can be heard.”
In an interview Tuesday, Harrison described the "tremendous growth" of unrepresented parties as one of the biggest challenges facing the local and state judicial system.
"The number of parties that don't have an attorney is growing by leaps and bounds," he said, and a local pro bono program and the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance group whose purposes are to help the under-served can't keep up with demand.
"It used to be they (Land of Lincoln) would do simple divorce," he said. "Now they're doing guardian ad litem and mediation in family."
Harrison said the court system is not set up very well to address the rise in the number of people who can't afford an attorney.
"Life for the average person is significantly more complex than in the past," he said, explaining the cause of the problem. He remarked that society and finances no longer reflect the lifestyle of Ward and June Cleaver. Financial transactions are more numbered and more complicated. What used to be the marital asset - the paid-off house - is now a house with a mortgage or negative equity, he said.
"2008 didn't make it any easier," he said.
Another reason for an increase in unrepresented parties, he said, is that wages also "have not kept pace with a whole generation."
"For some there is very little capacity to pay," he said.
While strains on the court system are not easily solved in a cash-strapped state, Harrison said his approach to easing the burden would be to make more court-related information available to parties online.
"Experience Matters" is the slogan
Harrison said his biggest accomplishment in his decade and a half on the bench has been in serving the public and helping people in their day to day lives.
He has acted as a supervising judge - a duty that requires case coordination and ensuring assignments are covered without conflicts.
He also has been a mentor judge, where he has helped new judges learn the ropes of organizing dockets, completing orders, filing forms, as well as managing personal items, such as filling out governmental employee paperwork.
Harrison has presided over just about every docket at the Third Circuit, including major civil, minor civil, traffic, misdemeanor, eminent domain, chancery, and now over contested divorce.
"These (divorces) are cases that need to be taken care of," Harrison said. "The Court takes the lives of people into their hands."
Asked whether he has been successful, he said, "Some days." He said he is a professional "neutral," not an advocate.
Family court, he said, takes a position similar to social work - "progress rather than perfection." The interests lie in what happens in the future as opposed to what has happened in the past, he said.
Other points on Harrison's resume include a very favorable rating by the Illinois State Bar Association Advisory Bar Poll, 10 years experience as a private practice attorney before his appointment as associate judge and his service on the board of directors of Prevent Child Abuse-Illinois.
In spite of the fact that Harrison has been on the campaign trail for about 15 months - he announced he was running on Aug. 5, 2013 - he said he has had to "cram" a lot of campaigning into a short period of time.
When asked what he talks to voters about when he's out in the community, Harrison said he spends a considerable amount of time explaining the difference between associate and circuit judge.
For clarity sake, associate judges are selected by a secret vote among a court's elected circuit judges. Associate judges are then appointed to four year terms. Circuit judges, on the other hand, are elected by voters to six year terms. To earn successive terms, circuit judges run for retention. Voters are then asked if the judge should be retained, yes or no. To be retained, the judge must earn at least a 60 percent "yes" vote. Judges running for retention do not run against other candidates.
Since he announced his candidacy last year, Harrison has raised $112,117 in individual campaign contributions. A vast majority of those contributions have come from the plaintiffs’ bar, and almost half – at least $47,000 – have come from asbestos attorneys.
Harrison rebuffs criticism that accepting campaign contributions from attorneys that may appear before him, while legal, "look bad."
"It looks bad to people who want to portray it as bad," he said.
He said that contributing money to a campaign gives people an opportunity to put their money where their mouth is.
"I have been complimented in the ISBA polls...I would hope that people who think I do a good job would contribute," he said.
When asked why it costs so much more money to win election in Madison County compared to other similarly sized counties in illinois, Harrison said the local media market is overshadowed by the St. Louis market.
"We are the tail and St. Louis is the dog," he said, in terms of airwaves.
"Seventy five percent of the money is going toward viewers who never vote in our election. It's a major problem in our area. Alternative methods are not as efficient."
He said that in media markets such as the Peoria (and county) area - comparable to Madison County - primary broadcasts reach the voting public.
While Harrison has presided over most civil dockets, the most high profile one he has handled was the nation's busiest asbestos docket.
He took over the assignment - historically reserved for elected circuit judges - in December 2011 after Judge Barbara Crowder entered a controversial order designating the vast majority of valuabe advanced trial settings to asbestos firms that contributed to her campaign committee.
A few months into his tenure as asbestos judge, Harrison eliminated the practice of advanced trial setting, finding no continuing need for the pre-assignment of trial settings.
That order, he said, was "procedural." It provided that claims were to be set by motion on a case-by-case basis, with the elderly and dying to receive preference in trial settings.
In the wake of Harrison's procedural changes, new asbestos firms arrived on the scene, the number of new cases filed in Madison County exploded, and no longer were mesothelioma claims the predominant type of case filed.
When asked if he anticipated that type of result, Harrison deflected the question.
"The decisions made about when, where and what type of cases... did it open the door? I guess."
"The question was whether we could continue to do it the way it worked 10 years ago and I don't believe it could," he said.
He said that by the time he took over the docket there was no longer a small number of firms filing cases. In the past, he said that a small number of firms participated in a "high degree" of coordination "so things would not overlap."
"It's easier when two people go for lunch," he said.
At about the same time Harrison announced he was running for the circuit court seat, he was reassigned off the asbestos docket.
"It was not a permanent assignment. I knew I would not be doing it for the rest of" the term, he said.
Harrison's late father Moses Harrison had served as an Illinois Supreme Court Justice from 1992 until 2002. He died last year at age 81.
When asked what kind of impact his father has had on his career, Harrison responded,
"He has been a great influence, but probably not in the way you imagine."
He explained that his father's life set an example as a "caring and giving individual" who made great effort to be concerned about the needs of others.
"I didn't start out dreaming of being a judge and following in his footsteps," Harrison said. "Instead, it was the way my father lived his life" that affected him most, he said.
"I had observed that he enjoyed his position," Harrison said. "He said it was his opportunity to serve. I saw my opportunity to serve as well."