Republican voters in St. Clair County will see something unusual on the ballot March 20 – two candidates vying for the same judgeship.
Marshall Hilmes, 46, of Marissa, who operates a Caseyville law practice handling municipal matters - Hilmes Legal Solutions - announced his candidacy in October.
He has served as a municipal prosecutor, city attorney, arbitration hearing officer for the state and municipal zoning and hearing officer in communities throughout southern Illinois.
Hilmes will face Katherine Ruocco, 51, of Swansea, who operates a law practice in Belleville and St. Louis and who announced her intention to run for the same seat as Hilmes in November. Ruocco served as a village trustee for four years until 2017, and ran campaigns against long-time Democratic state lawmakers.
Her race against State Sen. James Clayborne (D-East St. Louis) in 2014 was close; she fell short by approximately 2,000 votes, a 3.6 percent margin. But, in a contest against State Rep. Jay Hoffman (D-Belleville) in 2016, she lost by a large margin of nearly 20 points.
As next month’s election approaches, the slings have come out in a campaign for the seat being vacated by Circuit Judge Jan Fiss, an at-large position where candidates run in all five counties of the circuit - Monroe, Perry, Randolph, St. Clair and Washington.
Democrat voters will see Associate Judge Heinz Rudolf on their primary ballot.
Ruocco tossed another shot at Hilmes recently, saying that a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition he filed in the Southern District of Illinois in 2010 was "concerning."
“Bankruptcy laws exist to financially liberate people who’ve suffered extreme financial hardships due to unanticipated life-altering events,” Ruocco stated. “These laws are not intended to give safe haven to spendthrifts who exploit the system through financial irresponsibility. Mr. Hilmes’ questionable circumstances suggest he may fall in the latter category"
Ruocco also stated: "His Hummer was repossessed and he filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2010. More concerning, however, is that after his bankruptcy was discharged and he received a clean slate, he has since demonstrated even further financial imprudence. Between 2010 and 2016, three different corporations Hilmes created were later involuntarily dissolved by the state due to his violations of state business laws. Two of these corporations also filed for bankruptcy. Meanwhile, Hilmes himself was sued by a creditor in St. Clair County Court (2014) for failure to fulfill his legal obligations. At the time Hilmes filed his judicial candidacy papers (November 2017), he was practicing law without malpractice insurance.
"The public already lacks trust in the St. Clair County Court. Do we in Southern Illinois really want another judge who applies laws to others, but not himself?"
In response, Hilmes said that at the time he sought bankruptcy protection, he was working in the St. Clair County State’s Attorney’s office making $1,212 every two weeks after taxes and had $1,000 per month in student loan obligations.
While student loan debt is not discharged in bankruptcy, Hilmes said his debt accrued due to living off of credit cards while he was in a three-year law school program at St. Louis University which did not allow first year students to be employed.
He said he was not “afraid” of his bankruptcy issue becoming known. He said his experience having gone through it has helped him help others in his law practice.
“I appreciate serving St Clair County and the amount I was paid in 2010,” he said. “Frankly, $1,212 every two weeks with $1,000 student loan payment wasn't enough to continue paying credit card bills from law school, support a family, and pay my student loans.”
As a judge, he said the experience will be beneficial in understanding financial difficulties facing people that may appear before him.
He said he knows about the plight of not having enough money to pay a power bill or pay for groceries.
“To some people, I know $200 or $150 is not much,” he said.
Bankruptcy records show that Hilmes claimed $202,567.66 in unsecured debt when his petition was filed in April 2010, of which $134,771 was owed to student loan creditors. An order discharging debt, not including student loans, was entered in October 2010.
He said a lawsuit filed against him by Access Group Inc., to which bankruptcy records show he owed $59,950, was settled before the scheduled first court date.
Regarding Ruocco’s record, Hilmes’ counter attacked saying she incorporated in Illinois in 2011 before she was a licensed attorney in the state, in violation of Supreme Court Rule 721 that requires an Illinois law office to have an Illinois lawyer licensed and engaged in the practice of law.
Ruocco responded by saying that the rule referenced by Hilmes requires a limited liability corporation (LLC) engaged in the practice of law to have an Illinois licensed attorney. She also said that creating the LLC before she began practicing in Illinois was not in violation of the rule.
“The subject Illinois LLC was created in 2011 in anticipation of my future Illinois practice and wasn’t engaged in the practice of law at time of creation,” Ruocco stated.
“I transitioned from a decade-long Missouri practice and began practicing law in Illinois in 2014, after obtaining my Illinois licensure. I have since been dually licensed in Missouri and Illinois.”
The latest back-and-forth between the candidates is not the first tension between Hilmes and Ruocco.
In December, Ruocco challenged Hilmes' candidacy to the Illinois State Board of Elections seeking to strike his name from the ballot. In January, the Board adopted hearing officer David Herman's Jan. 8 recommendation that Hilmes remain on the ballot.
Ruocco had argued that even though Hilmes' voter registration indicated his name is B. Marshall Hilmes, he failed to note on his nomination papers that his full or Christian name is "Brandon," as listed at the Attorney Registration and Discipline Commission (ARDC), which could lead to voter confusion.
Ruocco further challenged Hilmes' voter registration status and claimed he failed to identify in his sworn statement the specific office and the specific vacancy for which his nomination was sought, among other things.
After the March primary, the winner will go on to face Rudolf in the general election.
Republican voters in St. Clair County have had a dearth of judicial candidates to choose from in recent history as Democratic candidates have dominated the election process.
Since 2002, there have been 14 open circuit court races, nine of which were won by uncontested Democrat candidates. Of the five that were competitive, only two Repubicans have succeeded.
In 2014, Republican Steve McGlynn defeated Rudolf and in 2016, Republican Ron Duebbert defeated Democrat John Baricevic.