Judicial candidates lay out qualifications; Napp and Burkart face off in November

Ann Maher May 17, 2012, 5:39am



Voters in Madison and Bond counties in November will elect a circuit judge for the first time since 2006. And this year, issues and experience - rather than big money - could define the campaigns.

Vying for the seat being vacated by the retiring Circuit Judge Charles Romani are candidates Kyle Napp, an associate judge, and Thomas Burkart, a Hamel attorney.

Burkart, a Republican, says that he expects to spend less than $50,000 during his campaign, and that he would not accept (and would return) "any donations from lawyers as well as special interest groups advocating for tort reform."

Napp, a Democrat, is not specific about campaign expenses. She says she doesn't believe the race will "garner the attention that the 2006 races did."

In 2006, nearly $1 million was spent on two circuit judge races between Dave Hylla (Democrat) and Don Weber (Republican); and Barbara Crowder (Democrat) and James Hackett (Republican). Hylla and Crowder were elected, and will face retention votes in November.

Both Burkart and Napp answered questions ranging from their qualifications to the national spotlight on the Madison County judiciary. The candidates, whose unedited answers appear below in alphabetical order, were not restricted by word count.

Thomas Burkart:

Why are you running for the position of circuit judge?

Anyone who has visited my website at www.burkartforjudge.com knows that on November 17, 2012, I listed my reasons for running. They have not changed:

1. I am sick and tired of there being no choice in November. The people of Madison and Bond Counties deserve better than to be left with the decision of a very few as to who's turn it is to be judge. Since 2006, three circuit judges have run unopposed as Democrats in Madison County.

2. A Circuit Judge should be well rounded in all areas of the law. I bring experience in both criminal and civil law. I served 4 years as a Madison County Special Public Defender early in my career and the past 25 years in civil and municipal litigation.

3. The Circuit bench should be well balanced. The State's Attorney's office should not be a minor league farm system for the Circuit Bench. There should be some representation from persons who know what it takes to run a successful business.

4. A judge should bring to the court an appreciation of the toll to both individuals and businesses of expensive and drawn out litigation.

I believe in a limited constitutional government. I am a staunch defender of the constitution's protections of individual rights, including the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.

I also believe that every wrong should be remedied freely, completely and promptly. (Ill. Const. Art 1 §12). The unscrupulous should beware, they will face justice.

How would you describe your temperament?

I am patiently passionate for the truth. My wife calls me the eternal optimist about people. I take pride in that. I am open-minded, and listen to all sides of an argument before making a conclusion. Even then, I remain open to changing initial impressions as the facts come forth. Finally, as I said in response to another survey, I pray that I will always remain humble enough to know that I do not know it all. I will bring integrity, discipline, timely decisions, a broad base of experience, and unbiased judgment to the Circuit Bench.

What types of cases do you believe you are best suited to handle?

My broad base of experience qualifies me to handle any case that would come before a Circuit Judge. There is no constitutional or statutory limit on the "type" of case that a Circuit Judge must be "suited for." Supreme Court Rule 63 requires that a judge be faithful to the law and maintain professional competence in it. It does not say be competent in criminal law, but not civil law, or vice versa. I am not a fan of pigeon holing judges into a particular docket.

Judges Andy Matosean and Charles Chapman both served as Chief Criminal Judge and Chief Civil Judge, as did most of their colleagues.

I have over 25 years of litigating cases throughout southern Illinois to protect people, their property and their rights. I will work tirelessly to timely resolve whatever docket I am assigned. More specifically, I have inventoried 23 high profile civil cases on my law office website as a sampling of my work (http://burkartlaw.com/our-victories.html). I represented clients as a special public defender in hundreds of cases over a four year period ranging from child neglect to attempted murder. I have recognized and corrected many errors of sitting judges (11 reported appellate cases available at http://www.burkartforjudge.com/Appellate-Experience.html, and many others unpublished).

I am very familiar with court personnel and the process in all divisions within the Third Circuit. To my knowledge, my opponent has only worked for the state. I can find no record of Ms. Napp entering an appearance in a civil case. She has never represented a person as a client, only the state as a prosecutor. She has never represented a business, small or large.

According to the Madison Record, she represented the state in the juvenile court for 14 years and worked in felony for five. Recently she became an associate judge. She has never appeared before the appellate court to correct trial court errors. I have the utmost respect for Ms. Napp, the office she has achieved, and the community service she has given. We are a better community for it. But, when I learned she was the Democrats' chosen candidate to fill a full Circuit Bench position, I felt the party leaders' choice was not based upon as broad a base of experience that I have to offer.

How do you plan on getting your messages to voters?

Until now, the only thing that apparently mattered seemed to be that there was a "D" next to your name. The last three years has caused a tremendous change in the way the independents, and yes, even many Democrats think about things. The leadership in the Democrat Party is doing a fine job of getting my message to voters.

Whether Democrat, Republican or Independent, Americans do not like to be told they have to, or cannot do something (it's a little thing called liberty). The "we know what's best for you" dictatorial arrogance of the Democrat leaders has shocked many. In the last six months, our county court has been made to appear scandalous with astronomical campaign contributions from trial lawyers to Democrat retention candidates who do not even have an opponent. One message that is definitely already out there is that it is no longer a slam dunk just because you have a "D" next to your name.

My views, experience and personal background are an open book on my website. Because my opponent has not accepted my challenge to refuse donations from lawyers and tort reformers, I am quite sure I will not be able to out-spend her or the trial lawyers. I have initiated and intend to continue a grass-roots campaign with the help of my friends, (Democrat, Independent and Republican).

The last time there was a contested race for circuit judge in Madison County, in 2006, an extraordinary amount of money was funneled into campaigns on both sides. Do you see that happening in this race? If so, where do you expect your support to come from?

No, at least not on my side. Also, I disagree with your supposition. In the last contested election, extraordinary amounts of money were funneled into the Democrats candidates' campaigns who outspent their Republican challengers more than two to one .

According to an article printed in this paper, Hylla raised $500,432 to Weber's $219,111; Crowder raised $124,214 to Hackett's $45,750. I have confirmed these figures with the Board of Elections. Suffice it to say, I will not be able to outspend my opponent.

In Madison County, Democratic judicial candidates have been hand-picked by trial lawyers who make staggering donations to their campaign coffers. There are constitutional guarantees of free speech (which I agree with) that prevent the prohibition of such donations.

My experience in the primary is that the voting public has no clue how the court system is structured or how it is influenced by what the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research has labeled the multi-billion dollar "Trial Lawyers, Inc. of Illinois." It is my hope that armed with such knowledge, voters will ignore all the hype money can buy in judicial campaigns and focus on issues that detract from an impartial judiciary. I expect my support to come from the public.

How much will it cost to fund your campaign?

$46,345.13. (Approximately)

What public perceptions about the Madison County judiciary do you believe need to be addressed or corrected in this election?

I am familiar with two perceptions that, unfortunately find some substantiation in the facts. First, employers perceive Madison County to be a hostile environment where the legal costs make it difficult to conduct business competitively with companies located elsewhere.

According to a 2009 study by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, between 2000 and 2005, Illinois has a net out-migration of 374,000 residents, the third-highest exodus from any state. At the same time, the state's economy had the country's fourth-lowest growth rate. More recently in Madison County, unemployment spiked between 2008 and 2010 from 7.5% to 11.5%.

Is it a coincidence that during the same period, asbestos filings for the county soared to match the 2003 record high of 953 with very few of these plaintiffs having ever stepped into Madison County? You are asking about perceptions.

To that end, I relay the following comment that was given to me about the closing of the Smurfit-Stone boxboard manufacturing company in Alton: "There is a significantly high ratio of claimed job site injuries to employees, which drives the worker compensation premiums to the point of not being able to compete in the marketplace. In addition, the legal system is driven into a frenzy making us a target for a plethora of class action torts. This, in turn, makes any prospective business cringe at the thought of locating in one of the most geographically central places in our nation."

Second, many of my clients have complained that their case seems to take back seat to the asbestos and class action dockets. On my website, I have a video testimonial of how one such case was reassigned from one judge to another to facilitate the retirement or the demotion of the asbestos judge, resulting in one judge questioning the already established rulings in the case by the other judge.

I know that these are important dockets, but if the majority of Circuit Judges are going to maintain local rules that make Madison County a "magnet" jurisdiction, then some accommodation has to be made to protect the common folks who simply want to have their cases heard.

Regarding the attention drawn to Madison County in December over the controversy involving Judge Crowder, do you believe the attention was warranted? Why or why not?

We are warned by the Code of Judicial Conduct that "a judge must expect to be the subject of constant public scrutiny. A judge must therefore accept restrictions on his or her conduct that might be viewed as burdensome by the ordinary citizen and should do so freely and willingly."

While I believe that the attention was warranted, I also believe in the presumption of innocence. Judge Crowder maintains that there was no connection between the $30,000 in campaign contributions her retention campaign received from the trial lawyers that received 82% of the asbestos trial slots in the week prior to the donations. As far as I am concerned Judge Crowder is innocent until proven otherwise. She continues to preside over several cases I am involved with.

I believe the attention is warranted because it sheds light on the extraordinary influence of money on judicial campaigns. There is an absolute constitutional right to donate money to a candidate of your choice. However, as proven by Judge Crowder's subsequent actions, there is no requirement that a judicial candidate accept or keep such donations. For my part, I pledged early on in my campaign that I would not accept, and if given would return, any donations from lawyers as well as special interest groups advocating for tort reform.

I respectfully disagree that expensive judicial campaigns are "a fact of life." I know for a fact that my primary opponent was to be well funded by tort reform special interests. With the help of my friends and a lot of grassroots campaigning, we were able to defeat him. I have challenged my opponents to have courage and lead in this area by joining my pledge. A 1999 survey found that 77% of those surveyed believed that campaign contributions influence judicial decisions. It can only be worse by now. I intend to continue to prove that money does not have to be a factor. See my blog at http://www.burkartforjudge.com/blog/2012/04/21/Money-In-Judicial-Campaigns-Why-Cant-They-Say-No.aspx.

Do you believe Judge Harrison's decision to eliminate advance trial settings for asbestos cases was good for Madison County? Explain.

My review is not complete, but I do not understand why the original order allowing trial slots to be awarded without reference to an actual case was not challenged, and if it was why it was not struck down. I believe the original order violated existing Supreme Court Rules. The Chief Judge of the Circuit is vested with general administrative authority of the Circuit, which includes the authority to establish general or specialized divisions of the Circuit Court.

This authority, however, is subject to the authority of the Illinois Supreme Court. Furthermore, the Chief Judge is elected by a majority of the nine Circuit Judges, and s/he serves at their pleasure (an implicit obligation to be in the loop).

To be valid, a general order must not conflict with a Supreme Court Rule. The 2004 Case Management Order's consistency with Supreme Court Rule 218 is inauspicious at best.

Rule 218, with which every other civil matter must comply, provides that "[e]xcept as provided by local circuit court rule, which on petition of the chief judge of the circuit has been approved by the Supreme Court, the court shall hold a case management conference within 35 days after the parties are at issue and in no event more than 182 days following the filing of the complaint."

Rule 218 goes on: "[a]t the initial and any subsequent case management conference, the court shall set a date for a subsequent management conference or a trial date." The Case Management Order that allowed for the assignment of trial slots without a case having been filed has never been approved by the Supreme Court.

Do you favor the current method for electing judges in Illinois (partisan elections with no limits on campaign contributions), or do you prefer some other system, such as public funding, merit selection, etc.

I favor elections. Whatever system is in place, human nature being what it is, there is always someone who is going to try to influence the selection. I would rather give the people, who have good and common sense, the ability to reject judges who are chosen by a select few. Whether you want to admit it or not, that is exactly what we have today. A very few leaders in the Democratic Party select who is going to run for judge, no one dares challenge the chosen one, and we get the system we have today. I would much rather empower the common sense voters of Madison and Bond county to reject improper influences on our judiciary when they occur, whether by a dominating Democratic Party or a dominating Republican Party.

Kyle Napp

Why are you running for the position of circuit judge?

I have devoted my career to public service, serving 14 years as a prosecutor and almost five years as a judge. I want to make a difference and to do so, I firmly believe you have to be committed to and involved in your community.

Judges have great influence and can be a positive role model for children and young adults. I would like to continue to develop and encourage that characteristic as a circuit judge. I have served on the board of the YWCA, Wood River Woman's Club and Child Advocacy Center. I have worked with D.A.R.E, Young Authors, Prevent Child Abuse Illinois, Oasis, Granite City and Wood River High School Career Day and numerous other organizations.

As a judge, I have worked closely with the Drug and Mental Health Courts, helping individuals, particularly young adults to become productive members of our society and saving thousands of dollars in incarceration costs. I've been a positive role model and have made a difference in my community, and I will continue to do so with the help of the hard working people of Madison County.

How would you describe your temperament?

On any given day a judge may be speaking with prospective jurors, hearing attorneys on contested motions, signing warrants for police officers, working with pro se litigants in a family or civil matter, talking with child witnesses or addressing a defendant in a criminal matter. As a judge, I serve the public and encounter people needing help on a daily basis. I aspire to treat everyone who appears before me with dignity, respect and courteousness.

I am fair but firm. My temperament has been evaluated twice by the attorneys who appear before me. In the 2011 survey of associate judges, I was rated 95.16% for my temperament. In the 2012 survey of candidates for circuit judge, I received a rating of 94.4%, while my opponent was rated 47.37% for temperament.

What types of cases do you believe you are best suited to handle?

As an associate judge, I have presided over a variety of cases including custody and visitation, orders of protection, civil no contact orders, divorce, child support, landlord/tenant issues, DUI, adoption, juvenile abuse and neglect, delinquency, petitions to expunge and the misdemeanor/traffic docket.

I have earned the respect of my colleagues and the attorneys who appear before me for my legal acumen and ability. I have the background and experience necessary to handle any docket to which I am assigned, civil or criminal. I would note that the circuit vacancy up for election is that of Chief Presiding Criminal Judge Charles Romani. He spent his entire circuit career in the felony criminal division. Criminal law is extremely complex and I am the only candidate with the extensive experience, both in civil and criminal matters necessary to replace Judge Romani.

I have presided over or prosecuted dozens of felony jury trials, including First Degree Murder, Predatory Sexual Assault of a Child, Aggravated Kidnapping, Armed Robbery, Theft over $100,000, Aggravated Unlawful Possession of a Weapon and more. That, together with my judicial experience in civil matters, enables me to handle any matter to which I am assigned.

How do you plan on getting your messages to voters?

I was born and raised in Madison County. I graduated from Roxana High School and my extended family resides here. My family and friends are obviously strong supporters of mine. Through the years, I have also been active in dozens of local organizations.

My goal is to build on that network of support with personal campaigning and networking with my supporters. I will knock on doors, continue to attend meetings and events, and make sure I have as much personal contact with voters as I can. My website and a Facebook page is another way I connect with citizens who wish to learn more about me. The response to my webpage has been phenomenal. I have been contacted by a number of groups and organizations asking me to speak with them. I really enjoy meeting with them and it is through these personal contacts that I hope to gain the voters support.

The last time there was a contested race for circuit judge in Madison County, in 2006, an extraordinary amount of money was funneled into campaigns on both sides. Do you see that happening in this race? If so, where do you expect your support to come from?

Every judicial race is different and much of it depends on the individuals running for judge. I do not believe that this circuit judge race will garner the attention that the 2006 races did. I plan on running my campaign on my credentials as a former prosecutor and my experience as a judge. My support will come from family, friends and individuals I have met through my work who want to support me and ensure that someone with integrity, ability and experience is elected to the bench. I am confident that when voters compare my record to my opponent's, I will prevail.

How much will it cost to fund your campaign?

Having never run a campaign before, it is difficult to say. This is a circuit wide judicial seat, meaning I need to ensure that the voters in both Madison and Bond Counties know who I am and why I am the best candidate. I plan on running an active campaign and will connect with every voter.

What public perceptions about Madison County judiciary do you believe need to be addressed or corrected in this election?

Madison County judiciary has been at the forefront developing and initiating programs to assist the public. I am proud of the accomplishments of our courts, such as Mandatory Mortgage Foreclosure Mediation, Pro Bono Legal Advice Center, Mandatory Mediation in Medical Malpractice cases and our nationally recognized Veterans, Mental Health and Drug Courts.

However, it is the character and qualifications of the two individuals running for judge that should be the determining factor for voters. My career has been dedicated to fighting for those without a voice or for those who thought they were powerless. I saw the desperate need to protect our children who were being sexually and physically abused and I took action, co-founding the Madison County Child Advocacy Center. I have served, with distinction, as an associate judge since 2007.

It is a level of experience unmatched by my opponent and it is the reason I was recommended in the latest Illinois State Bar Association Judicial Advisory Survey, while he was not. I am proud of the work I have done in my judicial career, and judging by what my colleagues and the attorneys who practice before me have said, I am not alone.

Regarding the attention drawn to Madison County in December over the controversy involving Judge Crowder, do you believe the attention was warranted? Why or why not?

Judges should expect and deserve the public and media's scrutiny, every judge should be held to the highest standards of conduct and I hold myself to those standards. As a sitting judge, I am prohibited from commenting on the details of that situation. However, I believe every person who comes to our courts deserves fair and equal treatment. I value the confidence placed in me as a judge in this county and I work hard every day to ensure that the public's faith and trust is upheld.

Do you believe Judge Harrison's decision to eliminate advance trial settings for asbestos cases was good for Madison County? Explain.

As a sitting judge, I am bound by Supreme Court Rules and Canons of Ethics which prohibit me from commenting on a pending or impending proceeding in any court. Rule 63, Canon 3 A(6). I can say that I know Judge Harrison. He is a person of tremendous integrity, and has always been an outstanding judge.

Do you favor the current method for electing judges in Illinois?

Every system has its merits and its flaws. I look forward to presenting my qualifications to the voters and will abide by their decision.

I do not believe that a committee of political appointees would make a better decision than the voters of Madison County. As a prosecutor, I always trusted and believed that citizens sitting as jurors would make the right decision. I have the same faith in the voters of Madison County.

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