Turn to other reforms, not taxpayers' pockets

Ed Murnane Oct. 29, 2006, 6:34am

One of the debates I recall during the Illinois Constitutional Convention in 1970 was over the method of selection of judges.

Should we have election by the voters or "merit" selection through one of the many systems in use in other states?

There was sharp division - so sharp that the issue was one of several questions considered apart from the referendum on the new Constitution when it was submitted on Dec. 15, 1970.

And just as Illinois voters ratified a new Constitution, they chose to elect judges in partisan elections.

In effect, they determined that judges - supreme, appellate and circuit - should be elected in the same manner as county commissioners, state legislators or sheriffs.

Since we wouldn't propose that county commissioners or legislators or sheriffs - or governors, for that matter - should have their campaigns financed by taxpayer funds, why would we propose that judges be any different?

If Illinois were to enact a "public funding" proposal today, or in time for the next round of judicial elections, the major beneficiaries would be the Democratic Central Committee of Cook County and personal injury trial lawyers.

The Cook County Democrats would be a major beneficiary because right now in Illinois, we elect 287 judges from Cook County and almost all of them are Democrats.

The trial lawyers would be a major beneficiary because for years they have been the one group of Illinois residents that has been most interested in who is elected to the bench. And they have spent the most money to advance their cause.

If Illinois is going to continue to elect judges in partisan elections - judges who are "slated" in smoke-filled rooms in Chicago (and yes, perhaps in Wheaton), the taxpayers should not be expected to foot the bill for electing them.

It is not surprising that calls for public funding of judicial elections have increased in recent years as the "non-lawyer community" - business, medical and other professions - have increased their involvement in judicial elections.

For years, the selection of judicial candidates and the resulting election of judges have been considered issues for the legal community to control. And while there is no doubt that judges should be lawyers, there is no reason why only lawyers should determine who sits on the bench.

So congratulations to the non-lawyer interests for getting involved in the process through grassroots activity, voter education and - did we mention - financial support.

Some within the legal establishment and their allies don't like having competition, but if we are going to elect judges as partisan politicians, then the arena should be open to everyone who wants to participate.

If advocates of change - particularly those who didn't like that the business and medical communities and local residents coughed up a lot of money to help elect a Supreme Court justice in Southern Illinois in 2004, they can join in a call for other reforms.

As one example, Illinois is considered a "wide open" state for campaign spending and contributions. Limits could be proposed. That could reduce the cost on all sides.

It should be noted that a limit would not have had an impact on the 2004 Supreme Court race. Despite some claims that business interests "bought" the Supreme Court seat, the fact is that both sides spent almost exactly the same.

Money did not determine the outcome. What did was the source of money. Much of Justice Karmeier's financial support came from more than 1,400 individual residents of the 5th Judicial District. On the other side, most of the financial support - practically all of it - came from plaintiffs' attorneys.

Here's another proposal - my own, not the proposal of the Illinois Civil Justice League. Nor is it a novel proposal.

Let's appoint judges.

Let's create judicial evaluation commissions in each of the five judicial districts. Put eight people on them - two each named by the four legislative leaders, assuring partisan balance.

Require that one of the appointees of each leader must be a lawyer, and one must not be a lawyer. Require that they interview candidates and submit at least three names to the governor for appointment to the judicial seat.

The three nominees must have been approved by six of the eight members of the commission. The governor's appointee takes his or her seat and is subject to a retention vote - yes or no - at the next election. If retained, he/she has a full term of six or 10 years, as is now the case.

No money is needed, other than some state funding to explain the process and enable sitting judges to get their names out for retention.

A similar process could be used to evaluate judges for retention. The same commissions could review the performance of the judge and make a recommendation.

So there are ways to improve the judicial selection process in Illinois without public funding. We have a constitutional convention call on the 2008 ballot. Changing the judicial article of the Illinois Constitution is a strong argument for calling a new convention.

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