Big money, big judicial campaigns

The Madison County Record Sep. 20, 2004, 4:34pm

Madison County voters are in the crossfire for one of the highest profile judicial races in recent history. Democrat Gordon Maag and Republican Lloyd Karmeier are battling for the right to represent 37 Southern Illinois counties on the state Supreme Court.

For trial lawyers, doctors, and business groups, the stakes are apparently high. Money is piling in from on both sides as the campaign increasingly resembles one for legislative office.

The Record talked with campaign finance guru Cindi Canary of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform about the race.

MCR: So has something changed? Have we entered a new era of intensity in judicial races?

CC:Unfortunately, from my point of view, we have entered a new era of judicial races.

Across the country, state Supreme Court races have become increasingly politicized and expensive. States, including Illinois, have seen a steady increase in the use of third-party and independent expenditure in judicial races, which have been a huge factor in ramping up the rhetoric in these races.

Voters need to remember that we elect judges not to represent a constituency or to hew unyieldingly to an ideology, but rather to consider the application and interpretation of the law to a specific set of facts and uphold our constitution.

MCR: What and when was the impetus for this? Why are judicial races
suddenly become so important?

CC: 2000 was the watershed year, when judicial elections across the country seemed to complete their transformation from relatively civil and somewhat sleepy election contests to high-stakes battles.

I attribute much of the escalation in cost and rhetoric in these races to the massive amounts of money which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce began pouring into these races in the late 1990's.

The Chamber, perhaps feeling it would be both more effective and efficient to push its tort reform agenda in the courts rather than the legislature, put $8 million into high court races in 2000 and in 2002 reportedly upped the ante to $40 million.

This, not surprisingly, spurred an arms race with similar infusions of cash from trial lawyers and other interested parties on the opposite side of the issue.

MCR: Give us an Illinois history lesson here. How does the money flowing into the Maag-Karmeier race compare to past Illinois Supreme Court elections?

CC: Over the past 8 years, spending on Illinois Supreme Courts has skyrocketed.

The 2000 Second District Primary (Dupage and Lake Counties) holds the record for the most expensive primary election, with candidates combining to spend $3.245 million.

The 2002 Fourth Judicial District (south central Illinois, including Springfield and Champaign) set the record for a general election, with the candidates spending in excess of $1.4 million, not including unreported independent expenditures from the American Taxpayers Alliance which were estimated at $250,000.

Whether candidate expenditures in the Fifth Judicial District rise to this level remains to be seen.

Thus far, campaign reports show that the two candidates have raised about $550,000. We expect to see that amount increase significantly between now and the election.

However, we expect the majority of the money entering this race, on both sides, to come from third party groups running independent campaigns in support of their particular candidate.

MCR: In Madison County, trial attorneys are the major donors to the circuit court judges who hear their cases. Is this a conflict? Is there a way to avoid this?

CC:In most jurisdictions attorneys have provided the primary source of campaign funds for trial judges.

On the one hand, it is understandable, because we elect our judges and elections cost money, but few members of the larger community have chosen to support judicial campaigns.

Attorneys are both a known constituency to judicial candidates and one which is invested in our judicial system.

On the other hand, the opportunity for conflict with attorneys appearing before a judge they've contributed to is readily apparent.

In statewide polling that we've done 81.6% of respondents said that they thought campaign contributions, whether they came from attorneys, business or political parties had at least "some" influence on court ruling.

We should be extremely concerned about how the public perceives our court system, since it's integrity, independence and authority rests on public confidence.

MCR: More generally, trial attorneys have become major players in the
Democrat party, some say supplanting unions as most influential. When
did this change occur?

Attorneys, like other successful professionals, have long been active contributors to campaigns.

Overall, I wouldn't say that they have supplanted unions. However, in the last reporting cycle trial attorneys did represent by in far the largest source of funds raised by the Democratic Party of Illinois.

My hunch is that this most recent spurt of giving was probably motivated by interest in the Fifth Judicial race.

The bottom line is that in Illinois, until we establish some rules of the game in terms of campaign contribution limits, groups on the opposite sides of an issue, will continue to participate in an ever-escalating war of dollars.

The dominance of special interests has increased the rhetoric and negativity in elections generally and particularly in judicial elections and, some would say, it amounts to little more than an attempt to hijack elections from both candidates and voters.

The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform is a non-partisan public interest group that conducts research and advocates reforms to promote public participation in government, address the role of money in politics and encourage integrity, accountability, and transparency in government. It is based in Chicago. You can read more about ICPR on the web at

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