Reform Illinois: Here's one first � and popular � step

Ed Murnane May 24, 2009, 1:44am

Here's the surest and fastest way for the State of Illinois to enact a sweeping reform that will attract positive national attention, eliminate some of the millions of dollars that are spent on campaigns by "special interests," and will do what more than 65% of the voters in all corners of Illinois would like to see happen.

It is such a slam dunk – such a sure winner – that prominent public officials of both political parties in Illinois like it.

If it is done, observers from throughout our state and the U.S. would agree: "Illinois truly is trying to enact positive reforms."

But it represents such a major challenge to the way things are done in Illinois right now that it may meet resistance from some who don't want major changes in the way Illinois does business.

"It" is the proposal by the Illinois Civil Justice League for Illinois to enact a non-partisan process for electing our judges – all of our judges, from Supreme Court down through the Circuit Court level.

We don't call for elimination of judicial elections, as some have. Illinois voters have spoken out loudly and clearly that they prefer to elect judges, rather than go through some kind of "merit" appointment process as is used in other states.

But Illinois voters also have said – within the past few weeks – that they would prefer judges to be elected on a non-partisan basis.

A state-wide poll conducted of more than 3,400 Illinois residents from each corner of the state shows surprising and overwhelming preference for judicial election in non-partisan elections.

The poll – conducted by We Ask America several weeks ago – shows that 67.22% of the respondents answered "yes" to this question:

Do you think Illinois would have better judges if judicial candidates were elected in non-partisan elections, meaning they do not run as Republicans or Democrats?

The second question asked:

Which of the following three attributes do you think are most important when choosing a candidate for judge?

The response was overwhelming:

A. Political Backing 6.35%

B. Experience and Education 88.32%

C. Endorsements 5.34%

The numbers were almost identical in all five of Illinois' judicial districts – from the First District which includes only Cook County to the Fifth District, which includes the 37 counties in Southern Illinois.

The Illinois Civil Justice League first proposed a non-partisan judicial election process in 2006 but the proposal was not widely publicized nor pushed.

The post-Blagojevich reform frenzy, which seems to be nearing a peak this week, touches gently on judicial election "reform" but misses the chance for true substantive reform.

"Reform" plans that call for public funding of judicial elections with no serious changes fall far short of true reform. Public financing of partisan elections means the political parties and special interests are the ultimate beneficiaries since it is their money that is being replaced by taxpayer funding.

That is not reform. That is forcing taxpayers to subsidize political parties.

In fact, the third question on the We Ask America poll was this:

Do you think it's a good idea for taxpayers to pay for partisan campaigns, instead of the political parties, interest groups and donors?

The response:

A. Yes 21.60%

B. No 59.64%

C. Unsure 18.76%

While the results were not as dramatic as to the first two questions, the opposition to public funding of partisan judicial elections is overwhelming.

The ICJL proposal was presented to the Joint Committee on Government Reform on March 31 and it was submitted to the Collins Commission on April 4.

The poll was conducted because – frankly – the ICJL was not certain what the public reaction would be to the concept, let alone the ICJL proposal.

We're convinced it meets the approval and popularity test among Illinois residents and we also know from experience that judges and judicial elections have not always been viewed favorably in Illinois, or by non-Illinoisans looking at our state.

A proposal such as ours – and the details are not complicated; they have been submitted to both committees and are available on-line – could immediately help establish Illinois as a state that is truly working to reform itself.

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