EDWARDSVILLE-Judicial races typically don't captivate the public's attention, let alone dominate political reporting. But with millions expected to be spent on the the 5th Judicial District race for Illinois Supreme Court, all eyes are on this one.
"It is the most important race in Illinois this year," according to Mike Lawrence, director of the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
Republican candidate Lloyd Karmeier of Nashville, a Washington County Circuit Court Judge, and Democrat Gordon Maag of Glen Carbon, 5th District Appellate Court Judge, face each other in a partisan battle for balance of power on the state's highest court, and what some describe as a referendum on tort reform in Illinois.
"Interest groups are going to try to define the issues," said Lawrence, whose group is monitoring campaign rhetoric.
"Supporters of Karmeier are going to reference the Madison County Courts and the influence of trials lawyers on the judges in Madison County and the Appellate Court," he added. "And supporters of Maag say that he is a champion of victims' rights, and Karmeier is a captive of big business."
State Senator Dave Luechtefeld (R-58), Karmeier's campaign manager, believes the outcome will play a significant role in the state's legislative agenda.
"If Judge Karmeier wins it will send a message to Michael Madigan and Governor Blagojevich that people in Illinois want tort reform," Luechtefeld said. "If Maag wins, then it will show that people are all right with the status quo."
According to Cindi Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a new trend shows big money flowing into state supreme court races across the country.
Exasperated Chambers of Commerce are redirecting energy away from state legislatures, targeting high courts as a means for tort reform.
"The U.S. Chamber really got involved in 1998, but it was in full force in 2000," Canary said. "It took everyone by surprise because these races used to be sleepy affairs that didn't generate much attention."
Chambers of Commerce got involved because the pro-business lobby believed state legislatures were abdicating responsibility for tort reform, and those legislatures that did address the issue wound up in court anyhow, according to Canary.
"I think Chambers recognized that state courts are a battleground," Canary said. "Seven-to-nine seats are easier than targeting the whole legislature."
BRINGING BALANCE TO THE COURT
An Illinois Supreme Court Justice has substantial influence on the state's judicial system. While hearing and deciding important issues before the Illinois Supreme Court is a "very, very significant" part of a Justice's duties, it is only the "tip of the iceberg."
A spokesman for the Illinois Supreme Court, Joseph Tybor, said administrative duties account for at least 50 percent of a justice's duties, such as granting licenses, disciplining lawyers and defining the code of conduct for lawyers and judges.
"Justices have broad supervisory authority," said Tybor.
When a judicial vacancy occurs before the end of a term, the Supreme Court is also charged with filling those judgeships by appointment until the next election.
"The Illinois Constitution gives Justices of the Supreme Court appointment authority for interim vacancies," according to Tybor. "Traditionally, the Court will side with the recommendation from the Justice in which the vacancy exists."
The tort reform issue in Metro East has been heavily covered by the media, raising public awareness and framing the debate which pits industry against the plaintiffs' bar. Consensus exists that reform is needed to stem the exodus of doctors leaving the state, particularly the Metro East, due to soaring malpractice insurance coverage.
But there is no consensus for a solution.
Of the seven Illinois Supreme Court justices, five are Democrats. In this high stakes election, a third Republican on the bench could improve chances for tort reform in Illinois, a battle which has been fought before.
In 1995, a sweeping tort reform package, which included caps on non-economic damages, sailed through a Republican-controlled Illinois legislature. Following legal challenge, the Illinois Supreme Court eventually overturned the measure in 1997.
The composition of the appellate court reflects a heavy influence of Metro East trial lawyers. In the 5th Judicial District--covering the 37 most southern counties in the states--35 percent of votes come from St. Clair and Madison counties. Yet, six of the seven appellate court justices are from Madison and St. Clair counties.
"Those races have been financed by trial lawyers," Karmeier stated. "They've been successful at blocking other good Democrats and Republicans from gaining access to the bench."
DECIDING, NOT DISCUSSING
Supreme Court candidates are forbidden from discussing how they would decide issues, but partisan allegiance and campaign contributions and endorsements provide clues.
"Like other governmental actors, judges have preferences over policy issues," said Brian Harward, associate professor of Political Science at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.
"Party labels may be a shorthand for a set of policy preferences held by a judicial candidate," said Harward.
Karmeier states he would bring balance to the court. “There needs to be representation from both sides of the aisle and I would attempt to bring fairness and impartiality to the Court," he said.
“You don’t want all prosecutors or all defense or plaintiffs’ attorneys,” Karmeier said. “That’s what has happened in the 3rd District since 2000 and that’s what has been happening in the 5th District since 1970.
“You have to have a court that ensures checks and balances.”
Maag, who did not return repeated phone calls to his campaign office, acknoweldges the need for addressing the medical malpractice insurance crisis, placing blame squarely on the insurance industry.
Maag declares on his campaign website, “There's no question that legitimately injured people deserve fair and just compensation, but it's time for the legislature to take action to stop rising malpractice insurance rates and help keep our good doctors in Southern Illinois.
"As a judge, it is my responsibility to apply the law, not make the law. It is never appropriate to contort, twist or interpret the law to reach a desired result. I believe legislators should legislate and judges should judge," Maag states.
VOTERS DECIDE ELECTIONS
"It's getting weirder and weirder," Canary said of the campaign as it grinds down to the final weeks. "It's an odd intersecion of non-profits, judicial conduct and out and out politics."
Campaign contribution reports in the final 30 days before an election will reveal how close the race actually is.
"In the coming weeks we'll have a fuller picture of what's going on," Canary said. "We've sort of been in a 'blackout period' until now.
"If polls show a huge gulf, then it will taper off, but if it's neck and neck the money will flow."
While pro-business interests will support Karmeier's candidacy, trial lawyers and unions will answer for the Maag campaign, according to Canary.
In a recent reporting period, 96 percent of contributions to the Democratic Party in Illinois came from trial lawyers.
"It's not unusual for the money to come from trial lawyers," Canary said. "But that percentage is stunning. And it's in sizeable chunks."