COLLINSVILLE-Candidates in the Fifth Appellate Court race offered contrasting views as wide as the geographical divide between the Saline County Democrat and the St. Clair County Republican in a forum Thursday morning.
Bruce Stewart, who hails from the southern reaches of the state in Harrisburg, says the kinds of problems affecting Metro-East courts don't exist in the First District where he is presiding circuit judge. And he doesn't buy into the "court reform movement" that swept through the state by the election of Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier in 2004. He bristled at the prospect of a similar contentious campaign he claims destroyed public confidence in the judiciary.
"I was disgusted at the end of that campaign," Stewart said. "A lot of people were."
Stewart, who won a coin toss to speak first at a public forum sponsored by the Edwardsville/Glen Carbon Chamber of Commerce at the Gateway Convention Center, said that if people want reform they should elect someone from outside Madison or St. Clair counties.
Stephen McGlynn, a Belleville Republican who was appointed to the appellate court last year by the Illinois Supreme Court, contends Karmeier's election helped correct courts that were "off track" and "grossly out of balance."
McGlynn filled the vacancy created by the ouster of former Appellate Court Justice Gordon Maag, who lost a retention vote and the Illinois Supreme Court race to Karmeier.
McGlynn blamed decisions made at the appellate level for contributing to the area's lawsuit abuse reputation. He said the region should be known for its vital infrastructure rather than lawsuits.
"One of the reasons it got so bad is that the appeals court was not providing proper oversight," McGlynn said.
During the last year the Illinois Supreme Court has reversed $13 billion in class action judgments derived from circuit courts within the Fifth Judicial District, including Madison and Williamson counties, McGlynn said. The Fifth District includes the state's southernmost 37 counties.
"These were judgments that were entered before the (2004) election," he said.
McGlynn said that since his appointment the appellate court has "stepped in early" to address "inappropriate" class action suits.
He said class action litigation is useful when it "remedies a wrong," but not when it is a "ruse to generate fees for lawyers."
Stewart said it is not the job of an appellate court judge to take into account "anecdotal" evidence such as businesses and doctors relocating out of the region while ruling. "The job of a judge is to decide cases fairly and impartially, not based on a political agenda," Stewart said.
He said the same kinds of problems facing Metro East courts don't exist in Saline County.
But McGlynn countered, "If you don't know the problem you don't know the cure."
Stewart said voters should choose him because of his 11 years experience as a trial judge and the backing he received from peers in a Judicial Advisory poll and an Illinois State Bar Association poll which rated him as "highly qualified."
McGlynn said he didn't care about "bar polls."
"The courts belong to the people," he said.
Stewart urged McGlynn to pledge he would not run a negative campaign by signing the "Code of Fair Campaign Practices."
But McGlynn said he would want the ability to defend himself if attacked by a third party outside of Stewart's campaign.
Stewart believes a person should not serve on the appellate court unless he or she has experience on the bench, making difficult decisions.
Appellate court judges don't always have lower court experience, as is the case in the Fifth District.
In September 2001, Madison County attorney Melissa Chapman, a Democrat and daughter of powerful Granite City attorney Morris Chapman, was appointed as an appellate court judge. In March 2002, she defeated James Wexstten in the Democratic primary. Chapman went on to win the general election in November 2002, defeating Republican John Long of Troy.
Stewart said he supported Wexstten in that race and declined to comment on Chapman's qualifications to serve on the appellate court.
A videotape of the forum will be available on the Record's website soon. After Stewart and McGlynn spoke at the podium, the candidates gave one-on-one interviews with media. Stewart answered questions, but declined to do so on camera.
When asked if he would recuse himself from cases in which litigants have made significant political campaign contributions, Stewart said, "not automatically." There are inherent problems with the system in electing judges, he said. But lawyers contribute to judicial races because they have traditionally been the most interested in the outcome.
He said his campaign committee advised him to return a $15,000 campaign contribution from the Lakin Law Firm because of negative publicity surrounding the firm's founder, Thomas Lakin.
Stewart said he would not be an activist judge. "Judges set standards, not policy," he said.