A recent New York Times editorial offered advice to neighboring Michigan on the best way to assure fair election of state court judges.
But what about Illinois? There is no doubt that our system of selecting and electing judges needs some tweaking.
The Illinois Civil Justice League offered a proposal to the Illinois General Assembly several years ago, when there seemed to be interest (since waned) in fixing our judicial selection process. It provides a fairer and bi-partisan way for Illinois to select state court judges.
This proposal does not eliminate the voter-approved process of electing judges in Illinois. It does provide a bi-partisan process for selecting qualified judicial candidates.
1. Each judicial district in Illinois (Supreme, Appellate, Circuit) will have an eight-member judicial screening committee to evaluate all candidates seeking election to a judicial office in Illinois.
2. The eight committee members will be appointed (two each) by the Speaker of the Illinois House, the President of the Illinois Senate, the Minority Leader of the Illinois House, the Minority Leader of the Illinois Senate.
3. The legislative leaders will each appoint one attorney and one non-attorney in each jurisdiction. Thus the eight-member committees will include four attorneys and four non-attorneys. The committees also would likely include four Democrats and four Republicans.
4. The judicial screening committees in each judicial district would interview all candidates seeking judicial vacancies. Candidates must meet requirements established by statute (i.e. years of legal practice, residency, etc.). The screening committees would recommend as many as four candidates from each jurisdiction whose names would appear on the Judicial Ballot.
5. Candidates must receive the approval of six of the eight members of the screening committee, thus assuring that each candidate would have approval from both parties and from attorneys as well as non-attorneys.
6. Candidates approved by the screening committee would have an indication of that approval on the ballot, providing that information to voters. Petition signatures would not be required.
7. Candidates NOT approved by the screening committee could appear on the ballot but only by acquiring a specified number of voter signatures on nominating petitions.
8. Candidates approved by the screening committee would be entitled to a designated amount of financial support from a fund to be determined by law. Candidates NOT approved by the screening committee would be limited to spending no more than the amount authorized for approved candidates.
This proposal, which is certainly open to modification, accomplishes several objectives of judicial election reformers:
It removes one-party domination in selection of judicial candidates and election of judges;
It establishes a forced bi-partisan review and approval process for judicial candidates before they appear on the ballot;
It provides for a limit on campaign spending;
It mandates an approval process that is equally lawyer and non-lawyer.
Term limits for judges as well as for members of the screening committees would be established by law, as would funding limits
Ultimately, the voters within a specific district would select their judges but the candidates would have gone through a bi-partisan and comprehensive screening process in order to appear on the ballot.
And the will of Illinois voters, as expressed in the Constitutional ratification in 1970, that judges be elected, would be upheld.