The local bar is signaling a willingness to finance controversial campaigns in St. Clair County that, if successful, will alter the process of electing judges throughout the state.
Belleville firms Becker, Hoerner, Thompson and Ysursa, as well as the office of Rhonda Fiss, each contributed $5,000 to the campaign of St. Clair County Circuit Judge Robert LeChien earlier this month.
Edwardsville-based Gori Julian, recently ranked second nationally in a list of top 20 asbestos firms, contributed $2,000 last month to LeChien.
LeChien also received a $1,000 donation from the Steamfitters Local 439 in Caseyville, bringing his fund-raising total to $13,000, aside from loans he has made to his campaign.
Contributions in excess of $1,000 have to be reported within days to the Illinois State Board of Elections. Third quarter reports that account for all contributions and expenditures through September must be disclosed by Oct. 15.
LeChien, along with circuit judges John Baricevic and Robert Haida, are seeking election to the vacancies they created last year when they submitted letters of resignation effective one year in advance (this December).
Illinois judges customarily keep their seats by running on non-partisan retention ballots which require a higher voter approval threshhold of 60 percent, compared to a judge's initial election which only requires a simple majority of 50 percent plus one to win.
Baricevic, who has spoken publicly for the three judges, has indicated the reason for running for election versus retention is based on Code of Judicial Ethics restrictions that he says prevent judges from "openly and aggressively" discussing controversial issues such as former judge Michael Cook's drug addiction.
He said that Cook's drug issue figured prominently in the campaign of Circuit Judge Stephen McGlynn, a Republican, who defeated Associate Judge Heinz Rudolf, a Democrat, in 2014.
Belleville City Clerk Dallas Cook has led a constitutional challenge to the judges' candidacies at the State Board of Elections, in Sangamon Circuit Court and at the Fourth District Appellate Court.
The judges have so far successfully maintained their ballot access.
Cook has until the end of the month to appeal the July 28 Fourth District decision to the Supreme Court.
If the high court ultimately rules for the judges, or if the appellate court decision stands, any judge seeking a successive term could either run for retention or election.
Haida's campaign finance organization accepted a $5,000 contribution from the Becker firm in March. He also loaned his campaign $10,000 in March.
Baricevic loaned his campaign $20,000 earlier this year. With approximately $8,000 on hand at the beginning of the year, Baricevic in March contributed $24,000 to the St. Clair County Democratic organization.
His first quarter report also showed an expenditure of $1,166.66 to Chicago attorney Michael Kasper in fees related to defending his ballot access.
Baricevic first ran for judge in 2004. He was retained in 2010 with 63 percent voter approval.
LeChien was first elected judge in 1998. He was retained in 2010 with 66 percent voter approval.
Haida first ran for judge in 2010, unopposed.
The only other time in state history that this type of election maneuver was tested occurred in 2006, in St. Clair County.
Then, circuit judge Lloyd Cueto vacated his seat and ran for election. He was opposed in the general election by Republican Paul Evans. Cueto won by a margin of 53.6 percent to 46.4 percent.