Weber-Hylla match-up draws clear distinction

Ann Knef Feb. 24, 2006, 12:00am

Don Weber

In the old days, only savvy voters could distinguish one judicial candidate over another.

Today's elections, however, cast sharp contrasts among candidates.

In what is expected to be a fiercely contested race for a seat on the Madison County bench, Don Weber and Dave Hylla are just beginning to wage their battles.

Weber, who was appointed circuit judge by the Illinois Supreme Court last November, plans to run a campaign on his public service experience.

"My whole life I've been a public servant," he said. "I've been an assistant state's attorney, then elected state's attorney. I've been the Collinsville City Commissioner and then back in the prosecutor's office.

"I've helped people who've had their homes broken into, who've been molested, who've had their sons and daughters murdered. I was glad I did it."

Since donning a robe and grasping a gavel four months ago, Weber has been frustrated that cases have repeatedly been removed from his court, primarily at the request of plaintiff's attorneys. So far, he has been removed from 66 cases. Whether some attorneys are keeping him from establishing a record of judicial service or not, Weber offers up a benefit of the doubt.

"I was a very staunch advocate as a prosecutor," said Weber. "I think that has some people scared. As a judge I am not an advocate."

In one of the few cases Weber has presided over, he remarked that a plaintiff's verdict was reached.

"When it was over the plaintiff's lawyer said, 'You treated me fairly'," he said.

"If people leave my courtroom and say, 'I was treated fairly', I am doing my job. So far, I've had one trial and both sides said I treated them fairly."

Hylla said he doesn't believe cases are being removed from Weber simply because he's a Republican.

"I don't think the problem has anything to do with partisan politics," said Hylla. "We have a Republican judge, James Hackett, and there has not been a mass exodus from his courtroom.

"People have to do what's in the best interest of their clients."

In response, Weber said that Hackett is very good at what he does in managing a criminal docket. "But he doesn't endanger plaintiff's attorneys wallets," he said. "He is not a threat to their income."

In spite of a recent survey of lawyers that rated Weber well below Hylla, Weber plans to emphasize that a bi-partisan group of area lawyers endorsed his selection to the court over other applicants, including Democrat Associate Judge Barbara Crowder. Crowder is seeking election to the post left vacant by the retirement of Circuit Judge George Moran.

"Justice Karmeier in the end gave me the nod," said Weber, adding that the ultimate legal authority in the state – the Illinois Supreme Court – also weighed in on his fitness by appointing him to the vacancy left by retired Circuit Judge Phillip Kardis.

Weber dismisses the Illinois State Bar Association's survey that awarded him a dismal 35.54 percent approval rating among lawyers who participated in the survey, to Hylla's 91.85 percent.

The survey also asked participants to measure the candidates' integrity, impartiality, legal ability, temperament, court management, health and sensitivity. In all categories, Weber was outscored by Hylla by significant margins.

Weber's campaign manager, Godfrey banker and attorney Tom Long said the Supreme Court could have appointed anyone they wanted to the court -- but chose the one selected by Karmeier and endorsed by a review committee.

"I think that sets a standard the ISBA poll can't challenge," said Long.

"When the people of Madison County look for justice, do they want it decided and controlled by the lawyers who have a financial stake in getting favorable decisions, or by a judge who has built a long and distinguished career of being fiercely independent and being right on the law?" Long said about the ISBA poll.

Weber challenged Hylla's fitness to the bench.

"Both of us can claim we've helped the little guy," said Weber. "But he's lined his pockets helping the little guy. I've helped the little guy and got a living."

"The experience I have -- everyone knows about the cases I prosecuted. I've gone to hundreds of trial."

"I've never seen him try a case--I'm talking about here--not West Virginia or Connecticut or Mississippi--here."

Hylla, an plaintiff's attorney specializing in work-related injuries at Bilbrey & Hylla in Edwardsville, expects he will be carried by his experience in "all areas" of the law and by the backing of Madison County lawyers.

"I would be comfortable doing anything in the courthouse," said Hylla. "I have a wide variety of experience in life."

Hylla, the first in his family to attend college, paid for his undergraduate and law school education by playing the accordion in a polka band. For 400 straight weekends he packed the room at the Polish Hall in Madison.

He also earned his tuition by working at the Madison Police Department doing "everything" except patrols.

"I played and I saved and I bought stock," he said. "I was born and raised in Madison County-- even my great-grandparents lived in this county and my loyalty lies with this community.

"I enjoy a broad range of support from people of all ages and backgrounds, including business people, the legal community, labor, family and friends."

Hylla has served as an assistant city attorney in Madison and special public defender in Madison County. He also was a deputy circuit clerk during his college years. He is vice president of the Madison County Bar Association and a member of the Illinois, Missouri and West Virginia State Bars.

Hylla has long aspired to become a judge.

"This decision was not made overnight," he said. "I've aspired to be a judge since I went to law school."

Hylla embraces the strong backing he received in the recent ISBA poll, but rejects the notion that he is too close to the trial bar to be fair.

"I would give a defendant a fair trial and not bend the law either side for either party," he said.

In every category of the judicial poll, except for "impartialty," Hylla earned better than a 90 percent approval.

"I'm very proud," he said. "My peers have shown confidence in me to be a judge. I hope it gives me a boost. Anyone who gets a recommendation of over 90 percent should be very proud of that."

The Weber-Hylla race may be decided on the effectiveness of each side's ability to get out the vote. But it certainly will depend on a lot of money, for which Hylla has an upper hand.

Hylla jump-started his fund-raising effort with an event last Nobember that drew cash from more than 160 donors. At the end of December, Hylla reported close to $40,000 in his treasury.

"Nearly all of my funds have been from the Metro-East and I hope that can continue," Hylla said.

"I don't think the public can stomach a repeat of the recent judicial races, and I would hope that kind of money is not involved in this election.

"County wide there are approximately 175,000 registered voters. It will take a lot of hard work and money to get my message to all those people.

"I expect a good race from my opponent," he said. "I expect both will be forced to raise significant funds to get the message out."

Hylla criticizes Weber from drawing on contributions from outside Madison County.

"I think this is a local race and would love to see it kept that way," said Hylla.

"However, my opponent has already shown a willingness to take money from a Chicago area political organization with one of its largest contributors being an insurance company from Boston. I am going to raise the necessary funds to show voters that I am the candidate with the ethics, integrity, independence and qualifications to be our next circuit judge."

Weber says there's no harm in asking for outside help.

"For the last 20-25 years corporations have been dragged into this court," he said. "What's wrong with helping to pick the judges?"

As of the last financial reporting period, Weber had raised a single $5,000 donation that came from JUSTPAC, the political action committee of the Illinois Civil Justice League.

Weber plans to solicit funds locally as well, he said.

That Madison County Court has attracted plaintiffs and defendants from all over the country, has hurt the job climate and clogged the local courts -- all to the detriment of local citizens, said Weber.

"The people who get injured in Madison County should have the courts open to them, not to lawyers three to four states away," he said.

Hylla acknowledged that Madison County has a tarnished reputation.

"I think improvements can be made," he said. "I would be the type of judge that would earn the respect of the average person -- the person that does not come in contact with the courts every day. That should be a priority, to treat people with respect and impartialty.

"By doing that the perception that some have that this is not a fair place to conduct a trial will be removed."

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