The screening solution?

Brian Timpone Sep. 23, 2004, 1:00pm

Supreme Court Justice Rita Garman

When Eighth Circuit Court Judge Dennis Cashman retired last month, the power of naming his replacement fell to Supreme Court Justice Rita Garman.

Garman, representing thirty Western Illinois counties, decided she couldn't do it all herself.

"Knowing Justice Garman, I'm sure the people that were chosen for the committee were qualified and fair." said Ed Murnane, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League, a group that backs tort reform measures in Illinois.

That 'committee' is the new Eighth Judicial Circuit Screening Committee. Members include three lawyers and four non-lawyers from the Eighth Circuit, all commissioned with helping one Supreme Court Justice pick a judge.

Under the Illinois Constitution, judicial vacancies are to be filled by the Supreme Court. Recommendations are made by individual justices in the judicial district where the vacancy occurs. A person appointed to fill a vacancy serves until the next general or judicial election when the vacancy is then filled for a full term.

Still, being appointed affords a judge a serious advantage as they become the immediate 'incumbent' on the bench.

Garman routinely appoints screening committees to fill vacancies in her district. The concept is common in Illinois but not so in Madison County.

The majority of judges in the 3rd Judicial Circuit are appointed first by the Supreme Court before they are elected.

Judge Andy Matoesian, Madison County's longest-serving Circuit Court judge, was appointed in 1978.

Judges Philip Kardis, Nicholas Byron, and Edward Ferguson were all appointed to the 3rd Judicial Circuit by the Illinois Supreme Court in January 1989. The trio filled vacancies left when Circuit Judges Philip Rarick and Charles Chapman were elected to the 5th District Appellate Court in November 1988 and Judge Horace Calvo was elected to the Illinois Supreme Court.

And Judge Ann Callis was appointed in December 1999 to fill a vacancy created by the death of 3rd Circuit Judge J. Lawrence Keshner.

More credibility?

The concept is a simple one. As in Illinois, Supreme Court Justices are ultimately responsible for filling judicial vacancies within their district, the 'committee' helps them make that choice a bit easier.

The members meet, study, interview, and screen candidates for open judgeships. Then they make a recommendation.

Maybe more importantly, in this increasingly polarized political culture where even judges are no longer seen as non-partisan, screening committees lend credibility to judicial appointments.

"A judicial screening committee would definitely be a good step forward. It would help the appearance of the system. However, it would depend on how the committee was chosen." said Steve Schoeffel from Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch.

Both candidates in the sizzling 5th District race for Supreme Court Justice say they support the concept of a screening committee to help select judges. Of course, the devil is always in the details.

"I believe that Judge Maag's statement favoring judicial screening committees is politically motivated, " said Murnane. " (Maag) realizes that the voters in the Fifth District are tired of the good old boys network, the way that Gordon Maag, Melissa Chapman, and Phil Rarick were appointed. The judicial screening committee could be a fair process and very useful,"

Maag has drawn Republican criticism for saying he would only name Democrats to his judicial screening committee. Karmeier says he will at least include members of both major political parties.

After winning election to the Illinois Supreme Court in 2000, Democrat Justice Thomas R. Fitzgerald announced he had formed a ten person commission to screen candidates for judgeships.

"The design of this commission is to aid me in the discharge of the important duty of selecting judicial vacancies," Fitzgerald said. "It provides me with insight from ten diverse, highly-qualified people in discharging that duty."

Fitzgerald's commission was all Democrats.

His commission included Elzie Higginbottom, a top Chicago powerbroker close to Mayor Richard M. Daley, former Democrat state senator and gubernatorial candidate Dawn Clark Netsch, and Democrat lawyers Eileen Letts, John DeLeon, James Wascher, William Conlon, and Anton Valukas, formerly U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois.

In most states, including Missouri, Iowa, and Indiana-- judicial vacancies are filled not by Supreme Court justices but instead by the Governor.

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