A St. Clair County judge who recently ruled in favor of the state's largest public sector unions says his former affiliation with Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan had nothing to do with vacating an executive order of the Speaker's political foe, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
But critics of policy decisions that prop up labor organizations at the expense of taxpayers have said it’s no mistake that some of the state's most consequential and political legal battles - contract negotiations, worker pay and union dues - have been filed in “union friendly” St. Clair County.
In office since 2014, Rauner has vowed to undo the policies supported by Madigan, which heavily favor organized labor, with little success in Springfield or in the courts.
Associate Judge Chris Kolker's Dec. 27 ruling overturned Rauner's order which exempted non-union state workers from having to pay "fair share" union dues. It came in a lawsuit brought by the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees that sought to invalidate the executive order which said fair share requirements impinge on free speech and association interests protected by the First Amendment, and employees should not be forced against their will to participate in or fund public sector labor union activities they find objectionable.
Kolker found the executive order violated collective bargaining agreements. He further held that the Governor cannot nullify fair share provisions that non-union workers have to pay as condition for receiving the benefit of unions' bargaining power. The order also indicates that Rauner's legal team in a cross motion for summary judgment acknowledged that the circuit court must rule in favor of plaintiffs because of a U.S. Supreme Court precedent.
Kolker, who worked as a personal injury lawyer before he was seated as an associate judge in 2013, also has been involved in local politics as a precinct committeeman. In the 1990s, Kolker worked as a legislative and political aide for Madigan.
When asked if his political leanings played any part in how he ruled in the case against Rauner, Kolker responded: "Anyone who reads the order will recognize the undisputed law dictated the outcome."
"You may also want to read the pleadings from the Governor's office, where they agreed the ruling should be that way under the current status of the law."
Kolker further said his former affiliation with Madigan played no role in his decision making.
"My employment 28 years ago as an entry level staffer had nothing to do with the ruling," he stated. "If there are conversations, I doubt those conversing have read the order or are familiar with the law."
Seeking a resident circuit seat in the November election, Kolker is running on the Democrat ticket and is the only candidate whose campaign committee has so far raised substantial funds.
He's seeking the seat vacated upon the death of judge Robert LeChien in August, a seat which remains unfilled.
Kolker's committee has netted $50,000 to date, which he says is due to being the only campaign which has held a fundraiser.
"I don't believe any other judicial candidate in the 20th has had a fundraiser, so there really cannot be comparisons," he stated. "Further, as you are probably aware, judges themselves do not do the fundraising. We are barred from asking for funds. I am not even a signatory on the committee on file with the State Board."
Like other prominent Democrat candidates in St. Clair County, judicial or otherwise, the contributions received by Kolker's committee have come predominantly from the local trial bar - lawyers or firms specializing in asbestos, medical malpractice and personal injury cases, including Gori & Julian of Edwardsville, Keefe firm of Belleville and Simmons of Alton.
As a contributor to Democrat candidates and causes over the years, his former law firm contributed more than $30,000 - and he personally close to $20,000 - including to Madigan.
Last July, Kolker was married to a lobbyist for the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, Katie Davis.
Kolker will be challenged in the November general election by attorney Laninya Cason of Belleville.
Cason previously served as an associate judge in St. Clair County from 2003 to 2015, while identifying as a Democrat during most of that period. But after a fallout with party leaders, she changed political affiliation to Republican and ran against Democrat Zina Cruse in 2012, losing by a margin of 54 to 46 percent. She ran against LeChien in 2016 and lost by a margin of 51 to 49 percent. She was not reappointed to the bench when her associate judge term expired in 2015.
Cason has criticized the St. Clair County court system as being overly political.
She said she does not have personal criticisms of Kolker as they have been "friendly and cordial," but she expects political antics to be "full steam ahead" as the campaign progresses,
"I'm not into the political scene," Cason said. "That's always been my problem. I'm not one to play political games."
She said, "Lawyers run the county."
"The judiciary is a separate branch of government," Cason said. "But especially in St. Clair County politics is infused into the judiciary."
"If you are represented by an attorney who is well hooked-up, you'll do okay. That's not right and not fair to residents."