Three of the four Madison County judges up for retention in November said a recently announced anti-retention effort will not change their campaigns.
Chief Judge Ann Callis and Circuit Judges Barbara Crowder and John Knight said they are aware of the opposition they now face from Citizens for Judicial Integrity (CFJI), but plan to continue to reach out to voters in hopes of garnering enough "yes" votes to keep their seats.
Circuit Judge Dave Hylla did not immediately return a message seeking comment and CFJI spokesman Phil Chapman declined to comment for this story until Tuesday, when he said his group will host a press conference at the courthouse.
Although the efforts of CFJI only recently became visible in Madison County, where the group has posted some signs and fliers announcing its anti-retention campaign, the group received an endorsement Wednesday from Illinois Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Doug Whitley.
Whitley said that CFJI approached the Chamber about a month ago for an endorsement. Whitley said he was skeptical at first because the group was unknown and wanted to embark on an initiative that is relatively rare.
CFJI, he said, "grew out of the Tea Party movement" and was behind the successful effort to defeat a sales tax referendum a few years ago.
"It's a long shot," Whitley said of launching a campaign against four judges' retention efforts. "But, I don't think there is a place in the state that would be more impacted than if it were to happen in Madison County."
Pointing to reports that call Madison County "a judicial hellhole" and its heavy asbestos docket, Whitley said, "I think it's pretty commonly known that Madison County gives the whole state a black eye relative to lawsuit abuse."
Whitley said if the state wants to encourage job growth, it needs to remove "some of these negative images" from the picture. Dragging businesses from around the world into the courthouse, he said, sends a bad signal.
"If the citizens of Madison County were to vote these judges out of office, it would be a huge signal not only that the citizens are taking back our courthouse from the courthouse gang, but it would be a hugely symbolic message for the whole state about changing our ways and wanting to be more pro-business in Illinois," he added.
The CFJI website, www.noretention.com, states that the "current court climate drives up insurance rates, kills job growth and drives away new business."
If voters think "we need to restore integrity to the Madison County Courts, create jobs and build a business friendly environment," CFJI encourages voters on its website to vote against retaining Callis, Crowder, Hylla and Knight in November.
According to CFJI's website, the "grassroots committee" formed in June in an effort to reform Madison County's court system.
The Illinois State Board of Elections website shows that CFJI does not have a campaign committee so it is unclear how money it plans to put into its anti-retention campaign.
Whitley said that Illinois law does not require the creation of a committee when it has raised less than $3,000.
Although CFJI states on its website that the current members of the court were elected with "huge contributions from judges and asbestos law firms" and are "responsible for a 'lawsuit explosion,'" the group doesn't specifically cite problems with the four judges, except for Crowder.
Pointing to last year's controversy over Crowder's campaign committee accepting donations from asbestos law firms and lawyers who appeared before her, CFJI states on its website that "many question if justice is for sale in Madison County."
Crowder said Tuesday that it is "absolutely legal for campaign committees to accept donations from attorneys," but that she instructed her committee to refund the donations after the contributions were criticized.
"I did that just because the last thing you want as a judge is someone questioning your integrity," said Crowder, who was removed from presiding over the asbestos docket as a result of the controversy. "I never entered an order for anything other than what I thought the law and facts supported."
Citing the CFJI's argument that lawsuits adversely affect the business community, Crowder said she and her three colleagues simply rule on motions before them, including those seeking dismissal. They, she said, are not the ones filing the lawsuits.
Crowder said her retention campaign is going well and is focusing on reminding voters about many of the court's efforts, including those to prevent family violence and increase pro bono opportunities.
She said she wants to help the voters understand the court is committed to the community. When it comes to the anti-retention campaign against her, Crowder said "she respects their opinion, but disagrees with them."
Crowder, Callis and Knight agreed that running for retention is a completely different animal than facing election.
"It's not easy or harder," Knight said. "I'd say it's just different."
Instead of running against an opponent, Knight said "you're running against everyone's idea of what a judge should be."