Judge Michael Powers
Judge Vicki Wright
Judge Bruce Stewart
Judge Steve McGlynn
Thanks to the court reform storm that blew into southern Illinois in November 2004, the battle brewing for appellate court judge in the state's Fifth Appellate District this election year commands attention.
Conditions are nearly identical to the 2004 Illinois Supreme Court race. Funding from trial lawyers is being funneled into Democrat candidate Bruce Stewart's coffers to simmer a tort reform movement. Business and medical interests are supporting Steve McGlynn, a Republican appointed to the bench last year by the Illinois Supreme Court, to keep it going.
But it's a far different picture in northern Illinois' sprawling Third Appellate District where candidates Michael Powers, a Republican, and Vicki Wright, a Democrat, are engaged in a traditional contest of superior qualifications and temperament.
"The intensity level is much higher in the Fifth District," said Ed Murnane, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League. "It is to some extent what happened in 2004. Some of the same forces are lining up."
With less money infusing the campaigns of Powers, a Will County associate judge, and Wright, a Whiteside County associate judge, the Third Appellate District candidates are making their cases largely in the alternative world of blogosphere.
"The media is different in the Third," Murnane said. "There is not a single focused area. Media is spread all over, none of which is dominant."
According to a political observer in the Third, voters don't possess a sense of urgency about the appellate court race.
Moreover, says the observer, a recent poll showed that more people are undecided than committed at this point in a district which is weighted evenly among Republicans and Democrats. Also, the average voter isn't aware that state judges are elected and not appointed. And, there is no focal media center. Markets include a portion of Chicago, Peoria and the Quad Cities.
There are more differences than similarities between the two elections. But in each race, Republican candidates are fighting hard not to lose any ground. In the Third District, there is a 4-3 Democrat to Republican balance, as in the Fifth, 4-3.
The ICJL, which traditionally has backed more Democrat candidates than Republicans, has endorsed both Powers and McGlynn.
"I'm very happy with where both candidates are," Murnane said. "I believe Judge Powers is going to win. Judge McGlynn looks good, too. I believe he will win."
Third: Powers v. Wright
The Third Appellate District encompasses 21 counties, stretching from Will, Kankakee and Iroquois counties on the eastern border of Illinois, along the I-80 corridor to the counties of Rock Island, Mercer, Henderson and Hancock on the western border. The district seat is in Ottawa, located in LaSalle County.
One-third of all votes in the district are concentrated in Will County--Powers' turf. However, there has never been a Will County judge elected to the appellate court.
There are clear distinctions between the two candidates.
Wright, who received her bachelor's degree from Northwestern University in Evanston, and her juris doctorate from Loyola University in Chicago, has been an associate judge in Whiteside County for 14 years.
On her website, she says, "I am running for the Appellate Court
for one simple reason. I am qualified by hard work and experience on the bench."
Her critics have taken issue with a sympathetic comment she made regarding Tookie Williams, a gang leader who was executed in December for murdering four people in 1979.
In December 2005, Wright wrote the following on the blog Inside Dope, but it has since been removed, "I came home, after a long day on the campaign trail, and lit a candle and prayed for Peace and for Tookie Williams who was preparing to depart our earth."
According to Wikipedia, an Internet encyclopedia, Williams was an "early leader of the Crips, a notorious American street gang which had its roots in South Central Los Angeles in 1969...While in prison, Williams refused to aid police investigations with any information against his gang, and was implicated in attacks on guards and other inmates as well as multiple escape plots."
On her website Wright says, "My personal history may help the voters understand my judicial philosophy."
She describes her upbringing in Sandwich, Ill., and offers this insight, "One summer, I joined other Northwestern students and lived on the Navajo reservation working with exceptional and special needs children. The experience has been invaluable to me on the bench. It taught me to respect and value all people and cultural diversity."
While on a recent stump in Kankakee, at which Sen. Dick Durbin was the keynote speaker, Wright reportedly criticized the war in Iraq and President George Bush.
Her endorsements include the Fraternal Order of Police -- Illinois State Lodge, the Associated Firefighters of Illinois, the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Illinois AFL-CIO.
Powers' endorsements by far outnumber Wright's. The son of a 42-year law enforcement veteran, Powers has the backing of the Metropolitan Alliance of Police, Bolingbrook Police Association Chapter #3 and Fraternal Order of Police (Joliet Lodge #58).
From labor he has lined up AFSCME Local #1028, Boilermakers Local #1, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 176. International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, Teamsters L.U. #179, Will-Grundy Central Trades and Labor Council AFL-CIO, and Will & Grundy Counties Building Trades Council.
The Illinois State Medical Society PAC, Illinois Chamber of Commerce, JUSTPAC (Illinois Civil Justice League), Progressive Peoria PAC (a subsidiary of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce), Family-PAC, ISRA Political Victory Fund (Illinois State Rifle Association) and National Rifle Association endorse Powers.
A former litigator and prosecutor, Powers has served as associate judge in Will County since 2004.
Powers is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a graduate of The John Marshall Law School.
A director of the Will County Bar Association, Powers served as partner in the Joliet office of the law firm Hinshaw and Culbertson from 1991 until his judicial appointment in 2004. While at the firm, he defended small employers, doctors, hospitals and school districts.
From 1988 to 1991, Powers served as Will County Assistant State's Attorney.
In a Judicial Advisory Poll, Powers received a "recommended" rating. Wright received a "not recommended" rating. The Illinois State Bar Association rated Powers "highly qualified" and Wright "qualified."
Financial disclosure reports due next week will provide a clearer indication of where the candidates stand going into the final hours of the campaign. But in the last reporting period, Power's campaign reportedly raised $47,120. Wright's raised $17,738.
Fifth: McGlynn v. Stewart
Awareness of judicial races was ignited in southern Illinois in 2004. Not only did voters show their dissatisfaction with former Appellate Court Judge Gordon Maag by ousting him from retention, the largely Democratic district elected Republican Lloyd Karmeier over Democrat Maag to the Illinois Supreme Court.
The district's epicenter -- Madison and St. Clair counties --contains the biggest voting block, a media center and a public whose concern over a doctor exodus tipped the election in Karmeier's favor.
With less than a month to go before the election, Fifth Appellate District candidates Stewart and McGlynn are so far duking it out politely. Both signed pledges not to wage attacks.
McGlynn, who's appointment came about through the election of Karmeier, is appealing to voters that he will continue the correction of a court system that had gotten "off track" and "grossly out of balance."
He has blamed decisions made at the appellate level for contributing to the area's lawsuit abuse reputation.
During a debate, 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 where he is presiding judge.
McGlynn, whose turf is the Metro East, said, "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, who did not receive a favorable rating, said he didn't care about "bar polls."
"The courts belong to the people," he said.
The appellate court race in the Fifth Appellate District is getting ample ink in newspapers throughout the district's 37 southernmost counties in Illinois. The media flocks to the candidates' debates and press conferences, and also generously rewards them with earned media coverage.
McGlynn and Stewart are buying expensive TV ads, radio spots and direct mail pieces, because they can.
In the reporting period that ended June 30, McGlynn raised $142,419; Stewart raised $145,020.
In the coming days those figures are expected to be dwarfed when pre-election financial reports are disclosed, although not on the scale of the Illinois Supreme Course race of 2004. At more than $9 million, it was the most expensive state supreme court race in the nation's history.