Lawyer donations are a natural source of revenue for electing judges in Madison County, or anywhere in Illinois.

But in recent years, the amount of money poured into local contested races has exploded, and brought into question the propriety of such donations.

In two Madison County circuit judge races in 2006 - the last time there were contests - a total of $889,507 was raised by four candidates. The Democratic candidates, and winners - Judges Barbara Crowder and David Hylla, outspent their Republican challengers - Associate Judge James Hackett and former Judge Don Weber - more than two to one.

Combined, Crowder and Hylla raised $624,646 and Hackett and Weber raised $264,861.

In Crowder and Hylla's campaigns, the majority of their donations came from local plaintiff firms and lawyers. For Hackett and Weber, their donations were a mixed bag. For Weber, his single largest donor was an Illinois legal reform political action committee. Hackett's funding was largely from local Republican committees and individuals.

Since 2006, three circuit judges have run unopposed as Democrats in Madison County's Third Judicial Circuit. In 2008, Judge Dennis Ruth replaced retiring Judge Nicholas Byron and Judge Richard Tognarelli replaced retiring Judge Edward Ferguson.

Judge William Mudge was elected last year, replacing retiring Judge Daniel Stack.

David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, said Illinois "has a problem with the way judicial elections are conducted."

While it is "perfectly legal" for lawyers to make contributions to judges they may practice before, it "looks bad," and doesn't keep confidence in the system, he said.

Yepsen said there's a case to be made for public funding of judicial elections, if not at the local level, at least at the appellate and supreme court level.

Public funding of judicial elections would cost less, he said. But even if elections were funded by taxpayers and not through political campaign committees, nothing could prevent private citizens from exercising free speech in making independent expenditures in support of their favorite candidate.

"I don't know how you get to that," he said.

The lawyer donation issue erupted in Madison County this week after Crowder's campaign committee accepted $30,000 from lawyers at three local asbestos firms days after she ruled favorably for them.

While Crowder has denied any connection between her Dec. 1 ruling that gave the Simmons firm, Goldenberg firm and Gori & Julian the vast majority of asbestos trial settings for 2013 and the donations she received from them on Dec. 5 and 6, she was removed from her post as presiding asbestos judge. Crowder has stated she would return the money.

In looking at the last election cycle in 2006, Crowder raised $124,214 from 276 donations in her campaign against James Hackett, who raised $45,750 through 113 donations.

The single largest donor to Crowder in 2006 was the asbestos firm of Goldenberg Heller Antognoli & Rowland in Edwardsville which donated $9,000. Second single largest donor was East St. Louis plaintiff attorney Rex Carr who gave $6,425; Taliana Buckley Asa & Reames of Edwardsville was third at $3,048.

Lawrence Taliana is Crowder's husband, and until the recent controversy, was her campaign chairman.

According to a report in today's Belleville News-Democrat, Taliana asked the Simmons firm and other firms to contribute to Crowder's campaign. The newspaper attributed the statement to the Simmons' firm's managing partner Mike Angelides. The newspaper said Angelides denied that the firm was promised anything in exchange for the contribution.

Crowder has been asked to comment about the matter beyond what she provided in a written statement, but has declined.

Rounding out the top five donors to Crowder's campaign in 2006, class action attorney Stephen Tillery was fourth, having given Crowder $2,500; and the Cates Law Firm of Swansea, as fifth biggest benefactor, gave Crowder $2,300.

Hackett's single largest benefactor was the Edwardsville Township Republican Committeemen which contributed $2,650; Edward Sholar, Sr., owner of Fast Eddie's bar and restaurant in Alton, contributed $2,500; East Alton plaintiff's attorney Edward Unsell contributed $2,500; the Madison County Republican Central Committee contributed $2,500 and JustPac, a political action committee for the Illinois Civil Justice League gave $2,000.

Hylla, in his campaign against Weber, received more than 300 contributions totaling $500,432 in the 2006 election cycle. Weber raised a total of $219,111 through 110 donations.

Hylla's biggest contributor was the SimmonCooper asbestos firm, which donated $154,900; Hylla contributed or lent his campaign $81,439; asbestos firm Goldenberg Heller Antognoli & Rowland contributed $32,800; Rex Carr contributed $14,955; and Simmons' firm attorneys Ted Gianaris and Jeffrey Cooper contributed $11,550 and $11,000 respectively.

Before being elected, Hylla practiced at a local asbestos firm, Bilbrey & Hylla, however, he has said he handled workers' compensation cases there, not asbestos.

As judge, Hylla presides over civil litigation, but is not involved in the asbestos docket.

Weber's biggest donor was JustPac, which gave his campaign $151,038. Weber contributed or lent $7,500 to his campaign; Christopher Hunter of Kirkwood, Mo. contributed $5,411; East Alton attorney Edward Unsell contributed $2,800 and the Edwardsville Township Republican Committeemen contributed $2,650.

Weber served as circuit judge by appointment following the resignation of Circuit Judge George Moran in September 2005, and then ran for the seat in 2006.

Weber drew ire from the plaintiff's bar while presiding over major civil litigation during his tenure, often ruling against their interests.

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