Expensive court race necessary for level competition

Ann Knef Nov. 1, 2006, 7:14am

The Fifth Appellate Court contest in southern Illinois will end up costing a mere third of what the most expensive state supreme court race cost just two years ago.

In the same high stakes battleground, some critics say spending millions of dollars on an appellate court race is outrageous and undermines public confidence.

Yet others believe that high level spending on judicial races is a means of leveling the playing field long dominated by trial lawyer-funded candidates.

Cindi Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform said the amount of money being raised in the race between Republican Justice Steve McGlynn and Democrat Judge Bruce Stewart is "appalling."

Questions of impartiality may be raised if a party who contributed to a judge's campaign eventually has to go before that court, she said.

"It's appalling that $2 million comes in an appellate court race," Canary said. "And there's more waiting in the wings on both sides."

Voters in southern Illinois are weary, she said, in the wake of $9 million spent in the contentious 2004 Illinois supreme court race.

"The idea that in an appellate court race you're going to have to raise $2-3 million...is off-putting to a number of good candidates," Canary said.

Ed Murnane, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League, said the reason judicial races have reached such a high spending level is because of the "long involvement" of personal injury lawyers in funding campaigns.

He said that the business and medical communities, as well as the general population, came to the "long overdue" realization that they have to compete with trial lawyers in order to win judicial elections.

Trial lawyer-backed candidates receive funding almost exclusively from trial lawyer contributors, Murnane said.

It is the "dominant factor" in Stewart's campaign, he said, compared to McGlynn's contributors who represent a broad range of interests including business, doctors and "hundreds of local citizens."

McGlynn, appointed to the bench last year by the Illinois Supreme Court, has a half million dollar fund-raising edge over Stewart. To date he has raised $1.4 million, compared to Stewart's $876,525. Stewart's total also takes into account fund-raising for a primary battle he waged earlier in the year.

The funding is not as intense, but the same dynamics of the 2004 supreme court race are in play in the Fifth Appellate Court race of 2006.

McGlynn's "court reform" message saturating airwaves, highways and mailboxes promises to continue what began with the election of Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier in 2004.

As in McGlynn's campaign, Karmeier's effort was supported largely by business and medical interests, as well as tort reform-enlightened citizens worried about the Metro-East doctor exodus.

Karmeier prevailed over Democrat candidate Gordon Maag who was primarily funded by trial lawyers. In that election, Maag -- a trial lawyer himself -- also lost his Fifth Appellate Court retention race. McGlynn filled the vacancy Maag left on the appellate court.

Stewart, presiding judge in Saline County, touts his experience as a trial court judge, his favorable ratings in judicial polls and the fact he comes from outside the Metro-East where courts have been labeled "judicial hellholes."

The fact that $9 million was spent in the supreme court race in 2004, and that $2.3 million has so far been raised in the Fifth Appellate District race this year is disturbing to another political observer.

Mike Lawrence, director of Southern Illinois University Carbondale's Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, said he is not critical of contributions that come from one side or the other.

"I do think we need to think about the implications of this trend," Lawrence said.

He said the amount of money being raised in the Fifth Appellate District race this year exceeds the amount of money both candidates spent in the Fourth Appellate District in 2002 and the amount spent in the supreme court race in the Third Judicial District in 2000.

"When I tell audiences the amount of money spent in Illinois on judicial races, they are stunned," Lawrence said. "The average Illinoisan is shocked.

"To many people it indicates judges are going to be influenced by a party who contributed to a campaign. I don't think it's good for the image of the courts.

"I'm not saying they are going to be influenced," he said. "The appearance is not good."

Trail's end

McGlynn's campaign is spending the final days on the trail going door-to-door and visiting small businesses and coffee shops. On Friday McGlynn plans a flyaround with a final stop in the Metro-East.

Stewart's campaign coordinator Marty Morris was contacted for comment, but he had not returned a call to the Record.

On election day, McGlynn's campaign plans to keep an eye on polling places, working with poll watchers to maintain voter integrity.

Campaign manager Jimmy Morani said the McGlynn camp plans to maintain a message that has so far been "100 percent positive." He said it is "unfortunate" that Stewart's campaign "decided to go negative first."

Morani was referring to a radio ad and a posting on Stewart's website stating that McGlynn's appointment to the appellate court was a political payoff.

"We thought he was a man of his word," Morani said.

"Our opponent initiated a 'no negative' campaign pledge," he said. "He was very proud he signed the clean campaign pledge with the Illinois State Bar Association and the State Board of Elections It's one of his talking points. He said he was disgusted by the last campaign."

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