Judges in Illinois: Never a dull topic

By Ed Murnane | Oct 26, 2008

It's a shame that most Illinois residents don't pay much attention to our judges, and particularly to the process in which they are selected. It can be great theater.

It's a shame that most Illinois residents don't pay much attention to our judges, and particularly to the process in which they are selected. It can be great theater.

On occasion, such as the Supreme Court contest in Southern Illinois in 2004, the drama reaches a level that is hard to ignore. In that particular instance, more than $9 million was spent on behalf of the two candidates seeking the seat representing the 37 southern-most counties in Illinois. The money was almost evenly raised and spent and in the end, the conservative Republican judge from Washington County, Lloyd Karmeier, defeated the Democrat appellate judge from Madison County, Gordon Maag.

It didn't help Maag that he was a former Madison County trial lawyer. Trial lawyers were viewed as a major cause of the medical liability crisis in Southern Illinois because of the number of lawsuits that had been filed and the resulting high cost of liability insurance that doctors were being forced to pay.

The Democrat Maag lost in what had been considered safe Democrat territory (especially for judges) and as if to put an exclamation point behind their outrage, Southern Illinois voters also voted him off the appellate court.

Most voters thought that election was over once Judge Karmeier was sworn in and became Justice Karmeier in early December, 2004.

Guess again.

One of the responsibilities a Supreme Court justice has is to recommend lawyers to fill vacancies in judicial offices within his or her district. The recommendations are made to the full Supreme Court, which routinely approves the choices of the local justice.

Justice Karmeier has had a handful of vacancies to fill since taking office and he has filled them with good, qualified attorneys. Yet just about every one has been challenged by candidates either hand-picked by the personal injury lawyers, or challenged by a practicing personal injury trial lawyer.

In the most recent appellate race in the Fifth District, the immediate past president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, Judy Cates, was the candidate in the Democrat primary against the Karmeier appointee, also a Democrat.

While Cates lost that race, she is still active on the judicial election battleground and has recently appealed to attorneys throughout the Fifth District for financial support for the challengers to the Karmeier appointees in the First and Second Circuits.

In her appeal to Southern Illinois lawyers, she stresses that "there will come a time in southern Illinois when the Supreme Court position will once again be an issue. We need strong Democrats in the judiciary in every county when that time comes."

Karmeier's term doesn't end until 2014 and he'll be eligible for retention if he decides to seek another ten-year term. But Cates appears to have appointed herself the protector of the court system
in Southern Illinois and her activity on behalf of two judicial candidates far removed from her own St. Clair County might be viewed as the first announcement of candidacy for the Supreme Court seat, when and if Justice Karmeier decides it's time.

In addition to Cates' appeal, a new political action committee, "Southern Illinois Citizens for Equal Justice," has been created and filed with the State Board of Elections. It intends to support Stephen Stone and L. James Hanson, the two candidates challenging Judges Randy Moore and David Overstreet.

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