At long last, one of the spotlights in Springfield has been shining on the issue of judicial selection – specifically how we select judges in Illinois and finance their campaigns.
Next year, there will be 178 judicial races on the ballot in Illinois. Some will be hotly contested races that may actually attract some attention and money. Some will involve long-sitting judges seeking voter approval for another six or ten year term. And some – probably many – will involve newcomers who have the blessing of local political machines and perhaps the local bar association and whose names are relatively unknown.
Illinois is a state that promises to have considerable ballot excitement next year. We have a race for governor that could be highly entertaining and is certain to attract national attention.
Who WILL replace Rod Blagojevich for a full four year term?
And we'll have a race for the U.S. Senate that could be equally entertaining because it will have the Blagojevich fingerprints all over it.
So the judicial elections – all 178 of them – could be ignored, as judicial elections usually are in Illinois.
And that's regrettable – unfathomable, really – when you consider that four of the seven seats on the Illinois Supreme Court are scheduled to be on the ballot next year and that some – many – of the judges elected or retained next year in Illinois will make decisions that will have profound impacts on the lives of Illinois citizens, and especially on Illinois doctors and Illinois employers.
Illinois is often considered "Exhibit A" when the subject of judicial elections and money is discussed. Our state holds the record for the most money every spent in a judicial election, the 2004 race for the Supreme Court seat in Southern Illinois.
For years, when trial lawyers were pouring thousands of dollars into judicial elections to maintain control of the courtrooms, there were no screams of protest.
But when business and doctors and hospitals – and citizens – in Southern Illinois decided they were tired of a judicial system dominated by trial lawyers or their friends from Madison or St. Clair Counties -- and they put up the money to do something about it, the screams began because the trial lawyers lost.
Even the winner of that election, Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier, described the almost $10 million spent in the contest as "obscene."
And you know what? We agree.
As one of the "special interest groups" that helped raise a lot of money for that race, and for other races, we agree that the system of selecting judges in Illinois could – and should – be changed.
One current proposal before the Illinois General Assembly calls for public financing of judicial elections. Don't let outside interest groups (supposedly that means groups like organized labor and the trial lawyers and business groups like the Illinois Chamber and doctor groups like the Illinois State Medical Society and coalitions like the Illinois Civil Justice League) finance these campaigns.
Instead, let the political powers select candidates and then have the state (i.e. taxpayers) pay for the campaigns.
That's what the idea seems to say.
And last week, the reform committee created by Governor Pat Quinn made just such a recommendation. They are proposing a pilot program that would be implemented in time for next year's judicial elections.
We don't disagree with the public-financing idea, but we think a vital element is missing.
We think we have a better way and last Tuesday, we proposed it to the Joint Legislative Committee on Government Reform.
We have proposed a system for electing Illinois judges on a non-partisan basis. Candidates for judge would be screened by a bi-partisan (equal number of Republicans and Democrats) commission that would include lawyers and non-lawyers (equal numbers) and would be required to select judicial candidates on a bi-partisan basis. The required number of votes by commission members would assure bi-partisanship.
The proposed system would not shut the door on judicial candidates who are not approved by the commission – but it would make it more difficult for them to get on the ballot. Judicial hopefuls would be required to appear before the commission as a condition for being listed on the ballot.
Our proposal also provides for public financing of judicial campaigns – but only of those candidates recommended by the bi-partisan commission. The amount of public financing would be determined by the General Assembly. Candidates not recommended by the commission could run but they could only spend an amount equal to the amount of public funds provided to recommended candidates.
There are details to resolve but the General Assembly can do that.
What this is is a proposal to elect judges on a non-partisan basis and reduce the growing cost of judicial races and remove the selection process from the proverbial "smoke-filled" rooms in Cook County or Madison County or DuPage County or Sangamon County or 98 other Illinois counties.
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Governor Pat Quinn
Illinois General Assembly
Illinois Supreme Court