Judicial reform proposal remains under lawmakers' radar

While sometimes it's good to be a record holder, some are questioning whether Illinois should continue to hold the national record for most expensive supreme court race. The same question has led to a proposal from the Illinois Civil Justice League on how to bring about nonpartisan, publicly financed judicial elections across the state. Those following the situation say that the ideas have merit but may not be a priority for the current General Assembly. "I don't know if we'll see it this year or that we may come back to it next year," said Cindi Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. "I think it's a very interesting proposal." Canary said she plans to present the ICJL's proposal to her board for its consideration some time in the future. Canary's organization has no formal position on it presently. The ICJL sets out a nonpartisan system for filling Illinois' judicial benches that relies on eight person Judicial Evaluation Commissions in each of the state's five judicial districts. The members, drawn from both parties, would be able to select up to four candidates for an open judgeship. These candidates would then appear on the primary ballots of both parties and the non-partisan ballot. Campaigns would be publicly financed. The goals of the proposal are to limit the influence of special interests in choosing judges as well as to curb out of control private campaign financing that led to Illinois' most expensive judge race to date. The 2004 state Supreme Court race in the Fifth Judicial District, in which Republican Lloyd Karmeier of Washington County, defeated Gordon Maag, a Democrat from Madison County. The race cost nearly to $10 million. Illinois gained national attention for the issue, cited in a 2008 article in Parade Magazine by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. In the article, O'Connor used the Illinois race to bolster her argument that the kind of wars fought by privately funded judicial campaigns undermines the impartiality and integrity of the courts. "When so much money goes into influencing the outcome of a judicial election, it is hard to have faith that we are selecting judges who are fair and impartial. If I could do one thing to solve this problem, it would be to convince the states that select judges through partisan elections - that is, when a Democrat and Republican run against one another -to switch to merit selection instead," O'Connor wrote. If Illinois were to implement the ICJL proposal, it would join states like Colorado and Nebraska that already have commission systems in place, although they are structured differently than the ICJL commissions. These state commissions, however, send choices to the state's governor, who picks a judge to fill a seat. After several years, that judge may go up for election. "This method decreases the importance of money and politics in the process while still allowing voter input on retaining each judge," O'Connor contends in the 2008 article. Judicial election reform is not a new topic in the Illinois political rind. Canary said that, although the issue had been touched on by the Illinois Reform Commission, given the on-going emphasis on "executive misconduct" related to former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, she could not say if the proposal would receive much legislative attention. "So much of the win has been sucked out of the room by the Blagojevich stuff," she said. "But, I think everyone who goes into court wants as impartial a judge as possible. We're open to all ideas … I don't think anyone's got a patent on the solution."

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