Early 'victory' in cards for 37 judicial candidates

Ed Murnane Dec. 2, 2007, 2:17am

More than 35 candidates for judge in Illinois will be "elected" on Tuesday, February 5, nine months before the 2008 General Election.

Although they won't be sworn in until early December, the new judges will be able to make plans for careers of six to ten years without facing the intense scrutiny that other candidates for public office in Illinois will be facing.

(Some of these new judges may even get on the payroll sooner than next December if any of the currently sitting judges decide to begin collecting a pension earlier by retiring.)

The reason for this early "election" of judges is the almost complete control over the judiciary held by the Democratic and Republican parties in Illinois.

Of the 61 judicial offices on the ballot in November (not counting retention), 37 will be uncontested. Twenty-four will have contests matching a Democrat against a Republican.

The 37 new judges include 29 Democrats and 8 Republicans.

Is this what Illinois voters really wanted in 1970 when they (we) voted to continue electing judges, rather than changing to some kind of a merit selection system in which judges are appointed after some screening and review process?

Did we want most of our judges (and practically all in Cook County, our largest and most active county) to be selected by local political leaders?

The local political leaders (and, sorry to say, the voters) selected the people who are running our state government right now. And those political leaders also are responsible for picking many of the judges in Illinois.

Another powerful entity, the Illinois State Bar Association, also plays a significant role in the election of judges because it surveys its members and uses that information as a way of influencing the news media and voters and trying to convince them that it – the organization that represents the lawyers in Illinois – is best suited to decide who would be a good judge, after the political parties have slated them or selected them in a primary election.

But much of the renewed attention on how judges are selected in Illinois is not because too many judicial candidates are unopposed, or because political parties have too much influence.

The current distress is primarily the result of money – lots of money – being spent on judicial candidates in the few hotly contested races Illinois has experienced in the past few election cycles.

Largely because of the active involvement of the business community and the health care community in Illinois in the 2004 Supreme Court election – and largely because the Republican candidate, Lloyd Karmeier, defeated the trial lawyer-backed Democrat Gordon Maag – there has been an increase in cries for public financing of judicial elections.

But public financing – that means taxpayer financing – of partisan elections is not the answer. In fact, the elections which have troubled the public financing advocates the most are those races in which voters were probably better informed and aware of the election and candidates than they are likely to be on any of the races on the ballot this year.

So maybe the public financing advocates really don't want the voters to know as much as they can about the candidates – and maybe they don't want the voters to become passionate about a judicial election – as they did in 2004.

Fortunately, there are other ways of selecting judges and next year, Illinois will have a chance to consider them. A constitutional convention referendum could open the door to judicial reform and various proposals are likely to be heard even before the con-con referendum.

Many states have an appointment mechanism – there are several appointment systems – and they seem to work well.

But Illinois citizens have rejected that idea at least once in the ballot box, and on other occasions in public opinion polling.

So it's time to consider something new and during the next few weeks, the Illinois Civil Justice League will spell out our proposal.

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