As lawyer Tom Keefe joined others accusing Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier of corruption, he told reporters he might not have made the smartest career move.
He may have said it to advertise his courage, but in the process he hinted at the grave risk he and his colleagues take when they equate campaign contributions with bribery.
After all, the lawyers who attack Karmeier for deciding cases that involve contributors have themselves given money to judges who decide their cases.
Keefe held a press conference on Oct. 28, protesting a Fifth District appellate court decision.
In that case, Justices Stephen Spomer, Thomas Welch and Gene Schwarm stripped Madison County Circuit Judge Dennis Ruth of jurisdiction over a wrongful death suit.
Keefe told reporters he wasn’t making any conclusions, but he raised a suspicion that Karmeier manipulated Spomer, Welch, and Schwarm as a favor to a contributor.
He told reporters he would continue trying to return the case to Madison County.
Keefe didn’t announce that his firm gave $2,500 to Ruth’s retention campaign on Oct. 20 and $250 on July 30.
A reporter asked Keefe if money his firm gave to Ruth canceled out contributions for Karmeier.
“If it went back to Madison County, I expect he would recuse himself, even though he wouldn’t be required to.”
Keefe said lawyers contribute to judges and if that needs to change, it’s up to the Legislature.
“Lawyers contribute to judges all the time,” he said.
Keefe represents Sarah Deatherage, widow of state trooper Kyle Deatherage.
He died in 2012, when a truck hit him on Interstate 55 in Montgomery County.
She sued DOT Transportation, DOT Foods, and driver Johnny Felton last year, and they moved for transfer to Montgomery County.
Ruth held a hearing on June 23, 2013, and denied the motion the next day.
Defendants petitioned the Fifth District for leave to appeal. Justices Melissa Chapman and Judy Cates denied it last September, with Spomer dissenting.
Defendants petitioned the Illinois Supreme Court for leave to appeal. The Supreme Court denied it but directed the Fifth District to grant an appeal.
The Fifth District granted an appeal this January, and set oral argument.
Keefe told reporters that at oral argument, there was a different panel.
He said Spomer was there, but neither Cates nor Chapman was there.
“I have never had that happen in 25 years," he said. "I have never seen a panel broken that way.”
Spomer, Welch, and Schwarm reversed Ruth on Sept. 30, directing him to transfer the suit to Montgomery County, Sangamon County, or Brown County.
Spomer wrote that DOT Foods and DOT Transportation have no office in Madison County and are not doing business there.
He calculated Madison County’s share of DOT Foods sales for 2012 at .0024 percent.
He calculated that hauls originating in Madison County generated .0027 percent of DOT Transportation revenues in 2012.
Keefe told reporters that facts came to light the week before the press conference.
He said DOT Foods gave Karmeier $5,000 on Sept. 27, John Tracy, president of DOT Foods, gave Karmeier $1,000 on Oct. 7, and DOT Foods gave another $5,000 on Oct. 23.
“I’d like to know why,” Keefe said.
A reporter asked about the timing of the press conference and the current television campaign against Karmeier’s retention.
“That’s not a connection for me to make,” he said.
A reporter asked if contributions of plaintiff firms to that campaign are proper.
“I’m not here to politicize this,” Keefe said.
He said he would ask the Supreme Court to send the case back to the Fifth District for a hearing before the original panel of Cates, Chapman and Spomer.
He said Karmeier appointed Spomer and Schwarm.
When a reporter asked if Karmeier played a role in their decision, Keefe said he didn’t know.
“I’m just telling you the facts I have," he said, "I’m not here to cast any aspersions.”
He said Sarah Deatherage and her two children live in Madison County.
"They didn’t go forum shopping,” he said.
He said that at the Fifth District, “I argued like crazy that this was the plaintiff’s home town.”
The Fifth District will issue its mandate to Ruth on Nov. 9.