In a state which holds the record for the most expensive supreme court race ever held in America, the call for non-partisan, publicly financed judicial elections is on.

The Illinois Civil Justice League (ICJL) is proposing a non-partisan system for electing judges to reduce costs and diminish the role of political parties and outside interests in the state's judiciary.

Ed Murnane, president of the ICJL, said there are still "lingering criticisms" over the 2004 state supreme court race in the Fifth Judicial District, in which Republican Lloyd Karmeier, a Republican from Washington County, defeated Gordon Maag, a Democrat from Madison County. The race cost close to $10 million.

The ICJL proposes the creation of eight-person Judicial Evaluation Commissions in each of the state's five judicial districts. Republican and Democratic legislative leaders in the House and Senate would each pick two commissioners per district -- one a lawyer and one a non-lawyer.

"Prior to candidate filing deadlines for the election of a new judge in a judicial vacancy, the Judicial Evaluation Commission would be empowered to select as many as four candidates for each open judicial seat," the ICJL recommends. "To be considered as a 'recommended' candidate, six (of eight) members of the commission would have to vote favorably for the candidate, which would assure that the choice would be both bipartisan and chosen by both attorneys and non-attorneys."

Murnane went on to say that recommended candidates would appear on primary election ballots of all the parties as well as the non-partisan ballot.

The ICJL also is recommending public financing of judicial elections, in an amount to be determined by the General Assembly.

"ICJL's recommendation would be to either prohibit or severely limit any other outside fundraising for the candidates who opt-in for public financing," a statement by the ICJL reads. "Other candidates would be allowed to file candidacy in the primary election, through the normal process of submitting petition signatures, however those not recommended by the Judicial Evaluation Commissions would be limited in their total expenditures to the same amount provided through public financing."

Madison County Chief Judge Ann Callis said she would reserve comment on the proposal until she reviewed it. But she expressed doubt about politics being removed from the process.

"Frankly, I don't believe politics can be completely extricated from a judicial process in a state system," Callis said. "In any process of the choosing of judges politics is always going to be involved."

Cindi Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform (ICPR), has said that heavy spending in judicial races -- in a state with no limits-- raises questions about the independence and impartiality of the courts.

"In a system with unlimited contributions we in essence turn the policy agenda over to the highest bidder," Canary said recently before the Illinois Reform Commission. She proposes campaign spending limits, meaningful campaign disclosure and vigorous enforcement of campaign finance laws.

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