Candidates lining up to fill circuit judge vacancies in next year's general election include three sitting associate judges who will seek nomination as Democrats in the Twentieth Judicial Circuit - Heinz Rudolf, John O'Gara and Chris Kolker.
Rudolf has indicated he will seek the "at-large" seat being vacated by Circuit Judge Jan Fiss, who is retiring at the end of his term next year. Voters in the entire circuit - St. Clair, Monroe, Perry, Randolph and Washington counties - elect at large judges, versus resident judges who seek election only by voters in their county of residence.
Having served as associate judge since 2006, Rudolf currently presides over a civil docket that includes mandatory arbitration, landlord-tenant disputes and mortgage foreclosure matters.
He was recently named to an exploratory committee formed by Chief Judge Andrew Gleeson to advance the implementation of a voluntary judge drug testing program in the circuit, given the backdrop of illegal drug use by St. Clair County judges and a probation officer which came to light in 2013.
Rudolf had run for circuit judge in 2014 for the seat vacated by former circuit judge Michael Cook - at the center of the drug scandal - and was defeated by Republican Stephen McGlynn. The drug issue, which included the cocaine overdose death of associate judge Joseph Christ in Cook's company and drug dealing of former probation officer James Fogarty, was a central theme in that campaign.
In a press release announcing his candidacy for 2018, Rudolf takes the matter on again, stating he supports drug testing for judges and indicating he has voluntarily submitted to drug testing since 2013.
"I believe in drug testing and that is why I have voluntarily submitted to drug testing for the past four years," he stated. “Public confidence in judges is paramount. I am happy to share my drug test results with the public.”
Other details in his release indicate that he has tried 55 jury trials to verdict including seven jury trials over the past year, as well as "hundreds" of bench trials over the course of his tenure as judge.
Rudolf has participated in the St. Clair County Home Foreclosure Mediation Program which has assisted more than 360 homeowners and mortgagers since the inception of the program in 2014. The mediation program allows homeowners an opportunity to work towards a resolution with help from a neutral party. It has resulted in 40 percent of participants reaching successful agreements, with 35 percent of homeowners retaining their properties, according to a release from the county.
He also is an Agency for Science Technology and Research (ASTAR) science and technology fellow and has served on the Illinois Supreme Court’s Judicial Conference Committee on Education.
O'Gara, who presides over small claims and eminent domain cases, will seek the at large vacancy being created by Circuit Judge Vincent Lopinot, who will retire when his term expires next year.
Prior to his appointment as associate judge in April 2016, O'Gara was a criminal defense lawyer for 29 years, having tried close to 100 jury trials in state court in Illinois and at federal court at the Southern District of Illinois, according to a press release announcing his candidacy.
He was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court and he argued appeals before the Illinois Supreme Court and the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit.
He is a past president of the Illinois Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the St. Clair County Bar Association.
“It has been an honor to serve the public in a very busy courtroom. My goal is to always give the parties and the lawyers a forum to try their cases, and to respectfully rule in a fair and just manner," he stated in the release. "I hope to be elected as a circuit judge and continue my efforts to bring justice for all.”
Kolker will seek election to the resident judge vacancy created upon the death of circuit judge Robert LeChien last month.
Having served as an associate judge since 2013, Kolker presides over major civil litigation. He also has covered criminal dockets, as well as family and traffic courts.
Before his appointment, he operated Kolker Law Office in Belleville for 14 years.
His campaign websites states, "As an attorney, he advocated for working people, the disabled and unions. Kolker also chaired the Illinois Civil Service Commission, where he cut the budget by over 15% during his tenure, while maintaining essential services and functions."
Kolker is the only one of the three candidates who has formed a campaign finance committee with the Illinois State Board of Elections.
According to records at the board, Kolker has so far raised $11,500, which includes contributions from attorneys across the state, including $1,000 from Edwardsville based asbestos firm Gori Julian.