Unusual is one way to describe races developing in the Twentieth Judicial Circuit:
- Voters will see contests in two of three open seats that were created by judges who vacated their positions so they could win them back by way of a simple majority vote, versus the tradition of retention which requires three-fifths approval.
- Two of the sitting judges seeking to stay on the bench are not running for the seats they vacated - they are running for each other's.
- One of the challengers is a former associate judge who formerly identified as a Democrat but switched party affiliation to Republican during a previous attempt at getting elected citing mistreatment by her former party.
- The other Republican challenger running in the five-county judicial circuit gathered enough petitions for each of the two at-large circuit seats to ensure that he could file to run against the opponent of his choice.
- That same individual previously lost a circuit judge race in 2012 and thereafter faced an ethics complaint lodged by his opponent which ultimately resulted in censure by a state disciplinary board.
Had the three sitting circuit judges - Democrats John Baricevic, Robert LeChien and Robert Haida - submitted paperwork to run for retention, partisan politics would not have factored in the electoral process. Their names would have appeared on ballots without party affiliation and only in the general election.
As it stands, the declared candidates will be on the March 15 ballot, unopposed. And in the general election, chief judge Baricevic will face Belleville attorney Ron Duebbert; LeChien will face former associate judge Laninya Cason and Haida will run unopposed.
Some have criticized the judges' moves to vacate and run for election, versus run for retention, as skirting state law.
"I guarantee it is not what the authors of the Illinois Constitution had in mind when they created the retention system for judges," said Illinois Civil Justice League President John Pastuovic. "It was their intent that judges, once they served, should meet that higher standard of 60 percent retention."
The decisions of Baricevic, LeChien and Haida, however, are not unprecedented. It was successfully put to the test in 2006 by former St. Clair County Circuit Court judge Lloyd Cueto, and until now, no other judge in Illinois has pursued this path toward victory.
Baricevic has defended the strategy as legitimate. He expressed concern that judges running for retention would be negatively targeted and vulnerable to a higher vote margin for victory. He indicated that judges seeking retention are bound from "openly and aggressively" discussing sensitive issues due to restrictions outlined in the Code of Judicial Ethics.
Baricevic v. Duebbert
Baricevic filed petitions for the vacancy created by Haida on Nov. 23 with more than 1,200 signatures. The vacancy is for a circuit wide seat that includes St. Clair, Monroe, Perry, Randolph and Washington counties.
He first ran for judge in 2004, and was retained in 2010 with 63 percent voter approval. He served as St. Clair County Board Chairman from 1991 to 2004, and as St. Clair County State's Attorney from 1980 to 1990.
Duebbert said he obtained approximately 1,400 signatures for the vacancy created by Baricevic and gathered approximately 1,200 signatures for the Haida vacancy. He filed for the Haida vacancy on the deadline day of Nov. 30.
Duebbert, a solo practitioner in Belleville, ran against judge Vincent Lopinot in 2012. After Lopinot won the race by a margin of 55.57 to 44.43, he filed an ethics complaint against Duebbert with the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission. The complaint alleged that Duebbert misrepresented Lopinot's involvement in a high profile murder case in 1989 in a flyer he distributed to voters.
On May 18, a review board of the ARDC rejected Duebbert's argument that the First Amendment protected his statements in the campaign flyer and recommended that he be censured.
On Sept. 21 the Illinois Supreme Court denied Duebbert's petition for leave to file exceptions to the report and recommendation of the review board.
"While Respondent engaged in serious misconduct, his misconduct arose out of an isolated incident in an otherwise unblemished legal career of more than 20 years," states the review board report that recommended censure.
LeChien v. Cason
LeChien was first elected judge in 1998. Before that he served as an associate judge from 1987 to 1998. He was retained in 2010 with 66 percent voter approval. LeChien, who has been a judge for 28 years, is seeking a fourth term as circuit judge.
LeChien will face former associate judge Laninya Cason in a race limited to St. Clair County voters.
Cason, who was first named associate judge in 2003, was not re-appointed to another four-year term in May.
She has fallen in and out of favor with the local bar through the years. When she was evaluated in a judicial evaluation poll conducted by the Illinois State Bar Association in 2007, prior to her first reappointment, she was not recommended.
In 2011, at her second reappointment, she was recommended.
In 2012, Cason sought a full circuit court seat. However, she had a falling out with Democratic party leaders and switched political affiliation from Democrat to Republican. In the ISBA poll preceding that election, in which Cason ran against and lost to Democrat Zina Cruse, Cason was not recommended.
Haida unopposed, again
Haida is running for the Baricevic vacancy in the five counties of the Twentieth Judicial Circuit. He first ran for circuit judge in 2010, unopposed. He served as St. Clair County State's Attorney from 1991 to 2010.
The period for objections to candidates' petitions began Dec. 1 and runs through Dec. 7.