Don't silence judicial campaigns

The Madison County Record Feb. 11, 2007, 8:00am

Thirty seconds of Super Bowl ad time cost $2.6 million this year. Bucking up were purveyors of everything from candy bars to cosmetics, all brazenly in the name of boosting customer demand for their products.

We have wonder-- where's the outrage? From the Illinois legislature, that is, currently hot and bothered over big TV buys by candidates running for judge across the state.

"Something has to be done," claimed State Sen. Kirk Dillard last week.

Dillard is alarmed about the judges, not the Snickers. He thinks spending millions on ads selling a munchies or light beer is just dandy. But pitching candidates vying to rule over our most important courtrooms? Paying for that kind of mass communication is untoward. It's corrupt. And it needs to be stopped.

Not surprisingly, the "solution" to this "problem" is a matter of more tax dollars. Dillard is volunteering taxpayers to relieve lawyers with robe-envy of the expense of running for judge, slightly supplemented by restricted at-will campaign contributions under a federal-style limits scheme.

That's public funding, coupled with a $2,000 per-contribution limit, all so Southern Illinois' airwaves don't get cluttered with campaign commercials for three weeks or so every two years.

Save the speculation. We already know how this story ends.

Shackled by contribution limits since the 1970s, the U.S. Congress has turned into a millionaire's club where average folks cannot run and incumbents almost never lose.

That's the latter because incumbents have built-in high name identification that requires serious challenger money to overcome. And it's the former because raising money a few grand a pop is hard, time-consuming work. Candidates forced to do it five nights a week start at a steep disadvantage to their rivals with big personal bankrolls, who can cut themselves a fat check and hit the campaign trail running.

Imposing the same ill-advised rules on Illinois judges would give the Randy Bonos of the world a giant leg-up over any and all mortal comers, for whom raising the money to compete becomes next to impossible. Meanwhile, sitting judges would become unassailable. Savor the memories, because we the people would never, ever oust an incompetent like Gordon Maag again.

Voter ignorance makes for incumbent bliss, while spawning wayward, unresponsive government for the rest of us. If there's one thing Madison and St. Clair Counties have taught us over the past three years, it's that Illinois judges need more accountability, not more job security.

In consumer products-- our nougat, nuts and caramel trump your plain old chocolate bar-- as in jurists, without public debate and discussion there is no progress. This much we know.

It's about time our elected officials started respecting free speech and embracing spirited judicial campaigns as virtues of our democratic system to be cherished, not an annoyances to be squashed. Let the commercials roll-- they have nothing to be afraid of.

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