It costs between five and 20 times more to win a seat on the bench in Madison and Bond counties than it does in comparable judicial circuits in Illinois.

Indeed, the pricetag for electing judges in the state's Fifth Judicial District is steep. Ten years ago candidates running for a position on the state's highest court here spent close to $10 million - a race which set a record for the costliest supreme court race in the country.

The stakes are just as high at the circuit court level in the Third Judicial Circuit where in the last 10 years - not including the current election cycle - winners who ran for election or retention raised more than $1 million in individual itemized contributions - and hundreds of thousands more in not-itemized contributions, transfers, in-kind contributions or loans.

In a closer look at the campaign contributions made between 2004 and 2012 for current or former judges Daniel Stack, Andreas Matoesian, Dave Hylla, Barbara Crowder, Dennis Ruth, Richard Tognarelli, William Mudge, Ann Callis, John Knight and Kyle Napp, at least $1,032,039 was collectively raised in individual itemized contributions for those candidates.

Of that figure, approximately $692,000 in contributions came from the plaintiffs' bar, or about 67 percent.

By comparison, 13 sitting circuit judges in the Sixth Circuit (Champaign, DeWitt, Douglas, Macon, Moultrie and Piatt counties) - some of whom have been seated for more than a decade - have collectively raised $44,665.66 - in itemized individual contributions - exclusive of not-itemized contributions, transfers, in-kind contributions and loans, according to records at the Illinois State Board of Elections.

And in the Seventh Circuit (Sangamon, Greene, Jersey, Macoupin, Morgan and Scott counties) 12 sitting circuit judges have collectively raised $226,981.46 in itemized individual contributions in election and retention races dating from 1992 to 2012.

Why the fund-raising differences between these three judicial district with similar demographics? Civil litigation.

Madison County currently hosts the busiest asbestos docket in the country. And before the Class Action Fairness Act was passed in 2005, Madison County was a national hub for class action filings, the third busiest docket after Los Angeles County and Cook County. But, post-CAFA, high dollar class actions are now directed into federal court.

Perception problem

Whether it is problematic for a lawyer to contribute significantly to the campaign of a judge he or she may litigate before depends on who you ask.

David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, says high dollar contributions from attorneys who practice before the judge they donate to "may be quite legal but they look bad."

Yepsen said these type of donations undermine the credibility of the courts with citizens.

"At a time when many are unhappy with every institution of government, it's incumbent government officials bend over backwards to avoid even the appearance of conflicting interests in their work," Yepsen said. "That is especially true of our court systems where we all go hoping to be treated fairly."

When asked whether the high dollar standard discourages participation in the system, Yepsen said, "The rising costs of all campaigns, not just judicial elections, is a barrier to participation by many would-be candidates."

He also said there is a "real danger" that public confidence can be eroded by the level of funding seen in Madison County judicial races.

"Judges can be the most honest and honorable people around - and most judges are - but they need to understand how this undermines the public image of the judiciary," he said.

"Not only must judges follow the requirements of the law and their code of ethics but they need to consider how what they do looks to people. Judges probably shouldn't be taking money from people in front of them. If judges do then they need to think about recusing themselves from those cases."

For Ed Murnane, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League, Madison County's system is what it is "because there are no effective prohibitions against current practices."

Murnane has long advocated for reforms to the way judges are selected in Illinois. One way, he said, would be to change the dates of judicial elections so they are held when municipal and school elections are held rather than in November general elections.

"Another, probably more effective, solution, would be to establish a bi-partisan screening process, including lawyers and non-lawyers, so that judicial candidates would appear on the ballot only after a review and approval by a bi-partisan panel of experts," he said.

A third way would be public financing of judicial elections, minus private funding, he said. In this process candidates would only have the funds provided by public sources and only after approval of a screening process.

Murnane also commented that under current campaign finance law there are no limitations on political campaign contributions, "either by size or by source, and there are no enforceable rules to prevent judges from taking political contributions by the bushel basket-full from attorneys – many of them specialist attorneys – who are likely to appear before that same judge within months or certainly within years. "

"There are solutions but there is no willingness to correct this problem in Madison County and in several other counties in Illinois.

"Drive North on I-55 from Madison County until you run out of road in Illinois and you will be in Cook County, with judges probably more at fault than the Madison County judges but the playing field is so much bigger in Cook that the problem doesn’t seem as bad."

He said reforms to the selection process would improve matters, but in order to be enacted they have to be approved by the political system in Illinois.

"And that is as much a part of the problem as it is a part of any solution," he said.

The Illinois Trial Lawyers Association had been contacted for comment, but declined saying that as an organization, it doesn’t get involved financially, or otherwise, in judicial races.

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