The Illinois Civil Justice League (ICJL) announced that it is not making a recommendation one way or the other in judicial retention races in Madison and St. Clair counties.
Ed Murnane, president of the ICJL, said even though the judges have acknowledged problems and have pledged to address them, they presided during a period of time the counties earned "judicial hellhole" reputations.
Murnane expressed encouragement that Madison County Judges Ann Callis, Charles Romani and John Knight were forthcoming and convincing during recent talks, but their answers to questions were not sufficient for endorsement to six more years on the bench, he said.
"We are not recommending a 'yes' vote," Murnane said. "That's a decision Madison and Bond County voters must make. Our endorsement would be used as 'proof' that everything is fine now.
"It is not."
Murnane said that St. Clair County Chief Judge Jan Fiss, who has presided over a judicial system that "has been perceived as one of the most unfair in the United States" seems to understand that changes are needed. Fiss also acknowledged that improvements in the court system -- such as putting court records on-line for easier reference and search -- are needed, Murnane said.
He said voters have had ample time to learn that the judicial system has been bad in St. Clair County and particularly hostile to medical professionals.
"In the eyes of many, the judicial system in St. Clair County is as bad – or worse – than it has been in Madison County," Murnane said. "Certainly there has been a more aggressive fight against doctors and hospitals in St. Clair and fortunately, some outside forces, including the bright spotlight that has been shining on the county, are having an impact."
Murnane said the ICJL has declined to join a grassroots "vote no" movement, even though "many allies" urged the group to do so.
"For one thing, the local forces don't need our participation," he said. "They are well-enough organized to get the voters mobilized, if that's what the voters want to do."
Murnane also said the ICJL did not want to divert attention from other important judicial races, those of Stephen McGlynn to the Appellate Court and Donald Weber to the Madison County Circuit Court.
"A third reason: there are enough people whose judgment we respect in Madison County who are supporting the three judges that the decision is not as clear-cut as it might seem.
"A fourth reason: we've looked the three of them in the eye, heard their message, and we'll give them the benefit of the doubt."
Murnane also said in a statement issued Monday that even though Callis, Romani and Knight have worked in the criminal court system rather than the civil court division, they were still part of a "broken system."
He said that all of the judges in the Third Circuit work together and "were certainly aware of what was going on – and what was being reported not only by local media but by national media, and not a word of dissent was heard."
Murnane had more to say about his meeting with Third Circuit judges:
"When we met, Judge Callis said she had proposed changes in the system but her comments were ignored. She didn't elaborate on what changes and when she had proposed them.
"In our meeting, we mentioned a few – only a few of many – incidents that embarrassed the Madison County judicial system in recent years: Judge Byron "banning" a former U.S. Attorney General from Madison County; the subpoenas issued to national and state leaders in the civil justice reform movement; the lawsuit against St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan; the Judge George Moran retirement under embarrassing circumstances; the Tom Lakin story; the Gordon Maag lawsuit against organizations that had opposed his candidacy in 2004. They agreed that each of these incidents was troublesome but no concern was ever expressed publicly.
"We realize judges can't control what's being done outside their courtrooms but the Madison County judges have had very close relationships with the local lawyers and there is no indication any expression of concern has been made.
"Earlier this year, a fund-raiser for their campaign was held and the committee leaders included several of the most hostile elements of the anti-reform movement.
"One of the names on the committee invitation was that of George Machino, president of the Madison County Federation of Labor. He was listed as the treasurer of the "Justice For All Pac," a trial lawyer front group that dumped more than $500,000 into the Maag campaign in 2004. Most of the funding came from the SimmonsCooper Law Firm and from Randy Bono. This year, he's helping raise money for Judges Callis, Knight and Romani. (Machino, by the way, called for a federal investigation of the Illinois Civil Justice League in 2004).
"So, these three judges who are running as 'reformers' are still closely tied to the forces that have given Madison County the image ( … more than an image, a reality … ) of a "judicial hellhole."
"To their credit, they have enacted some modest reforms and they assured – emphatically by Judge Callis – that the reforms would not be rolled back after the election. They also assured in the meeting, and in subsequent e-mail exchanges, that the judges would meet with the business or medical communities to discuss and resolve any problems.
"The changes they have implemented supposedly were agreed to unanimously by all the judges in the Third Circuit – and that would include Judge Byron – but there are rumblings that Byron is not happy that he has been removed as chief of the civil division and that his unhappiness has extended to some prominent plaintiffs' attorneys, including Randy Bono and Steve Tillery. There has been some speculation that forces close to Bono and maybe to Tillery were responsible for negative phone calls concerning Callis recently.
"There is a lot of opposition to these judges in Madison County. 'Vote No signs are very visible. Encouraged by the defeat of Gordon Maag in 2004, there is hope that opponents of the trio can get 40% of the vote to dump them and let the replacements be selected by Justice Karmeier.
"That's a tempting prospect.
"Should residents of Madison (and Bond) counties keep these three in office, or should they let Justice Karmeier find three replacements?"
According to Murnane, Fiss admitted he had voted for Judge Lloyd Karmeier -- a former colleague -- for the Illinois Supreme Court.
"He pointed out that he was once Judge Karmeier's boss, now the roles had been reversed," Murnane said.
While the ICJL endorsed the retention of St. Clair County Circuit Judge Milton Wharton, Murnane said the ICJL will neither endorse nor oppose Fiss's retention.
During an interview, Murnane raised the issue of a private meeting Fiss attended with local trial lawyers and legislators and others to discuss the growing medical malpractice problem facing St. Clair County.
"When asked if it was appropriate for a judge to participate in what was a private meeting, he talked about who was there (representatives of doctors, hospitals, etc.) and said that as a member of the community, he is interested in helping solve problems and working with others of like mind," Murnane said. "We're not sure participation by a judge in a 'secret meeting is appropriate, but nor do we think a judge should be removed from his community."
According to Murnane, "(Fiss) was happy the ICJL had endorsed his colleague, Judge Milton Wharton, for retention, and he expressed uneasiness with the decision by his other colleague, Judge Lloyd Cueto, not to seek retention but to play games with the system."
After Murnane's statements were published in a report on the Record's website, Fiss responded with the following statement:
"I would strongly dispute the inference that I said I felt Judge Cueto was 'playing games with the system'. This may have been someone else's words, but not mine. What I recall saying was that Judge Cueto made a choice that he felt befit his circumstances but not mine."
Murnane said all four judges voiced disapproval of Cueto's tactic in running for election to his own seat rather than running for retention.
"To their credit, they are putting their records on the line in difficult times for the Madison and St. Clair County judiciaries and working to earn the support of 60% of the voters.
"Judge Cueto did not trust his own record to meet the voters' approval."