Third Circuit judicial candidates Kyle Napp and Thomas Burkart view a number of issues differently, but one thing they agree on is that experience matters in the seat they are vying for in the Nov. 6 election.
"I have a stellar record and reputation as judge," said Napp, who has served as an appointed associate judge since 2007, and currently presides in the court's Felony Division. Prior to being appointed associate judge, Napp served 14 years as an assistant Madison County state's attorney.
"I have an excellent reputation as a prosecutor," she said.
Napp resides in Godfrey. She is married to Alton attorney Alan Napp and they have three children. She is a Democrat and ran unopposed in the March primary.
She said that since the open seat being vacated by the retiring Circuit Judge Charles Romani is exclusively criminal, it is important that the person who gets elected "knows" criminal law and understands "the nuances of evidence."
"I've tried felony cases," she said. "There is so much at stake for the victim and defendant.
"You have to know what you are doing."
Burkart resides outside Hamel. He is married to attorney Karen Burkart and together they operate Burkart Law Offices in Hamel. The Burkarts have four children. Burkart is a Republican who defeated Edwardsville attorney Mark Rabe by a margin of 54-46 in the primary.
He said he would make a better judge than Napp because of his experience in the courtroom and at the appellate level.
"I don't know the exact count, but I have tried hundreds of cases," Burkart said. "I have listed 23 (on my webpage) of who I fight and what I fight for."
"I have also represented defendants in criminal (cases) in the early part of my career. I was also a special public defender appointed by then Chief Judge Charles Chapman."
'Couldn't stay on the sidelines anymore'
Burkart said he got into the race because he was tired of seeing judicial openings going unchallenged by the Republican Party. The last contests for the circuit bench occurred in 2006, in which two open seats were contested. In 2008 and 2010, circuit seats were won by Democrats who faced no challenge.
"I couldn't stay on the sidelines anymore," Burkart said.
One of the hallmarks of Burkart's campaign is a pledge he made to not accept campaign contributions from lawyers who may appear before him in court.
According to Illinois State Board of Elections financial disclosure records, Burkart has so far raised $3,000 through a personal loan and from two donations from an area retired teacher. Napp has raised close to $50,000, much of which has come from contributions from local attorneys.
Burkart cites a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Caperton v. Massey, in which the high court ruled that a West Virginia Supreme Court justice should have recused himself from participating in a decision in which one of the litigants had contributed heavily to the justice's campaign committee. Burkart says the "important" decision cuts to the core of the problem of judges receiving contributions from local bar members.
He acknowledges that it is perfectly legal for judicial candidates to accept campaign contributions.
"That doesn't mean a judge has to accept those contributions," he said.
Regarding candidates' explanations that they don't know the source or amounts of contributions, he says that is "the deception."
"'I've got an independent treasurer and he is not supposed to tell me.' That is the fallacy that judicial candidates don't know, so you don't have to worry about it," he said.
He said he believes judicial candidates who do accept contributions from lawyers who could go before them in court, "are scared to death to lose the fallacy, to lose the opportunity to say 'we don't have knowledge.'"
"The Massey case is so important," he said.
Burkart also takes issue with the professional background of his opponent, saying "I did not want to see another State's Attorney" advance to the circuit court. He said a circuit judge should have a more rounded background working in criminal and civil law.
"I don't believe the State's Attorney's office should be the appropriate farm team to be circuit judge," he said. "A circuit judge should be well rounded in civil and criminal matters."
On the question of what change he would like to bring about in the local court system, Burkart said he would "stop the use of secret settlements in all civil cases." Pointing specifically to the court's handling of asbestos suits, Burkart said "secret agreements" are getting stamped as "good faith" settlements without proper finding. He said the law of contribution is supposed to make everyone pay their fair share.
"Bottom line, is that this procedure is not designed to get at the truth," he said. "It is designed to be manipulated by the parties to either avoid paying their fair share of fault, or optimizing the plaintiff's recovery. A defendant who is not really that much at fault is victimized by the courts without even being given adequate information to defend itself."
In spite of being out- fund-raised, Burkart is optimistic about his chances in November.
"I don't do push polls," he said. "My only feel comes from going door to door and talking to people at meetings and wherever I can. My feeling is that we are doing very well.
"Democrats are doing just fine for me. People don't like the direction Democratic leadership is taking us, from the top to the bottom of the ticket.
"It's a bad year to have a D next to your name."
'My opponent is not going to dictate how I run my campaign'
Napp's approach to her campaign is three-pronged: She is taking advantage of the exponential reach of social media, accepting as many speaking engagements to community groups as she can and "staying positive."
She said the message she tries to convey is that "one person can make a difference and that judges should be involved in the community if they want to make a difference – it's not just something you take up because you're running for judge.
"For 20 years I have been working hard in the community."
In the week leading up to Sept. 26, Napp said that on Facebook she had 179 new "likes," 758 people were talking about her page and her total reach was 104,712.
"It's amazing," she said about the reach. "Social media is a much bigger aspect than it used to be."
Napp cites her high rating in an Illinois State Bar Association (ISBA) poll as more evidence of her qualification for the circuit seat.
"In the ISBA poll I have been ranked the highest associate judge in integrity, legal ability, court room management," she said.
Napp says that Burkart is not qualified for the criminal bench.
"He was not recommended by the ISBA, which he lists as the first organization he is a member of on his website," she said. "He was not recommended by other attorneys.
"The fact that he has a lawsuit pending against him from clients (that accuse him of withholding a portion of a jury verdict)... that brings into question his ethics and credibility."
(Burkart has declined in previous interviews to comment on that pending Madison County litigation).
Burkart, however, disputes the ISBA poll's validity saying the results are skewed, and that in it Republican challengers "have always" been rated "not recommended."
He said in a statement that he "has no problem with Ms. Napp touting that she did really well in the poll, but she crosses the line when she holds the poll out on her website as 'an important tool for voters to measure the relative legal abilities and qualifications of candidates for judge.'"
In spite of Burkart's criticism, Napp says that she has earned the respect of law enforcement, lawyers who practice before her, as well as litigants – both victims and defendants.
"I have been endorsed by all police chiefs in Madison County and the Sheriff," she said.
"Attorneys who have practiced before me all have been impressed with my demeanor, knowledge of the law and compassion for the situation. They know I am doing a good job and ruling according to the law."
As far as criticism on her lack of civil experience, she said, "I chose to be a prosecutor."
She said that she worked in the private sector her first year out of law school, serving as counsel for Chicago Title and Trust Co.
"I wanted to do more," she said. "I felt I needed to make a difference.
"I was not making a difference (at Chicago Title) ... that's why I left and went to the Madison County State's Attorney office."
Napp rejected Burkart's criticism of judicial candidates accepting campaign contributions from local lawyers.
"My opponent is not going to dictate how I run my campaign," she said.
"I absolutely follow the code of ethics and the Illinois State Board of Elections rules. I guarantee those rules will be followed.
"As a prosecutor I would have been offended if I was told 'you can't contribute because you are a lawyer.'"
She also said that Burkart made campaign contributions himself to judicial candidates in 2000, 2004 and 2008.
"It's interesting what he is saying about donations," she said.
"So if it is so wrong than why did he do it?
"I would submit that we have a right to make sure good judges get elected.
"His oath not to accept campaign contributions from lawyers in my opinion is political gamesmanship. He knows he is not respected in the legal community and he was not going to get support.
"He gave up nothing by making that pledge."
Napp said the "one thing" she would change about the court system would be to get cases moved through the system quicker. She said it is a problem that every division of the court deals with and that every division's reason for backlogs is different.
"Having cases pending for an extended period is really detrimental," she said. "If I stay focused that is one thing I would definitely try to improve."
Napp said that she has enjoyed the rigors of the campaign trail.
"I have a new-found respect regardless of political affiliation of how much effort it takes to run for office," she said. "You're putting yourself out there. You are working all the time aside from your regular job."