Democrat candidates seeking election to circuit court seats in the Twentieth Judicial Circuit have received high marks in the Illinois State Bar Association judicial advisory poll released this week.
Associate Judges Heinz Rudolf, John O'Gara and Chris Kolker all received "recommended" ratings in the poll in which only lawyers who who have sufficient knowledge about a candidate's qualifications are asked to give a "fair, informed opinion."
Candidates are rated “recommended” or “not recommended” based on whether the lawyer doing the evaluation agrees that the candidate “meets acceptable requirements for the office.” Candidates receiving 65 percent or more “yes” responses to that question are rated “recommended” and candidates receiving less than 65 percent are rated “not recommended.”
The poll is conducted by mail and is sent to all ISBA members in the circuit, though licensed attorneys who are not members of ISBA, or any attorney outside the circuit or district, may request a ballot. More than 240 attorneys participated in this poll.
Those who turned in evaluations panned GOP candidates with not recommended ratings, something that is not uncommon with respect to the ISBA poll. The only Republican candidate for judge in the Twentieth Judicial Circuit to have received a recommended rating was Stephen McGlynn, who during the 2014 election cycle had been seated by appointment to former judge Michael Cook's position. Cook stepped down after his arrest for heroin possession in May 2013, and McGlynn defeated Rudolf in the general election.
One of the Republican judicial candidates this year - Katherine Ruocco of Swansea - has received the worst of any candidate across the state overall since 2000, with a 9.68 mark in the category of "meets requirements of office."
She's running for the vacancy of Circuit Judge Jan Fiss, who is retiring at the end of his term this year, for a seat in which voters from all five counties in the circuit - St. Clair, Monroe, Randolph, Perry and Washington - cast ballots. In the March 20 primary, she will face Marshall Hilmes of Marissa. The winner will go on to face Rudolf in the general election.
Ruocco called the polling "inaccurate, politically divisive evaluations, and an effort to influence judicial decisions."
"The entrenched Democrat bar here in St. Clair County uses this poll as a means to discourage Republican judicial candidates from seeking office, and for use in attack ads later on," she said in a statement. "A letter is sent with the results of the poll, stating that if you remove yourself from the ballot, the ISBA will refrain from publishing your results. This resembles the crime of intimidation, a threat to certain candidates to refrain from seeking office.
"Politically motivated attorneys cast the majority of votes, and underrate those judicial candidates who are deemed bad for business. The Republican judicial candidates' last election were also not recommended, with fit for office ratings of 26.97 and 21.81. With my record of challenging the one party rule agenda here in St. Clair County, and running on a platform of a more fair and independent judiciary and keeping politics out of the courtroom, these results – although entirely inaccurate - were fully expected.
"I take little stock in a poll that rates judge Michael Cook, convicted of heroin possession and felony weapons charges, a score of 96.39 (2008) for being fit for office. I’ve never cast a ballot in this poll as I don’t believe in its integrity."
Hilmes received a 22.78 rating in the category of meets requirements of office. He had not yet responded to a request for comment
On the other hand, Rudolf, with a 96.73 rating, said he was pleased with results of the poll.
"I am a sitting judge with over 12 years of judicial experience," he said in a statement. "Neither of my potential opponents has ever served as a judge. I am pleased that during my tenure on the bench, attorneys representing clients on both sides have consistently given me some of the highest ratings for integrity, impartiality, and legal ability. Experience matters."
In the race to fill the vacancy of resident circuit judge Robert LeChien, who died last August, Kolker was recommended with a rating of 91.96 in meets requirements of office over Republican Laninya Cason, who served as an associate judge from 2003-15, with a rating this year of 21.30 in that category.
When Cason was affiliated with the Democratic Party the poll recommended her for re-appointment to associate judge in 2011, but when she ran as a Republican for a circuit court seat in 2012, she received a 41.20 rating. Again in 2016, when she ran for a circuit court seat, she was trounced by the poll with a 21.81 rating.
Cason is running unopposed in the primary and will face Kolker in the general election.
She called the poll "fake news," saying her ratings in past polls are a "prime example of how politics influences the process."
"Democrat lawyers run the county and they run East St. Louis," she said.
"I hope the public sees through this charade and chooses judges who are fair and honest."
Kolker's campaign manager Todd Mathews, an attorney at Gori Julian in Edwardsville, said the lawyers who practice alongside candidates and judges are "in a unique position to assess the qualities necessary for good judges."
"The attorneys who practice in Judge Kolker's courtroom acknowledge he is fair, impartial and smart," Mathews said in a statement."No one is in a better position to grade Judge Kolker's work and work ethic than those attorneys."
In the race for the vacancy of the upcoming retirement of Circuit Judge Vincent Lopinot, O'Gara was recommended in the poll with a 96.83 rating in meets requirements of office over GOP candidate Paul Evans, who had served as state representative and ran for circuit judge against Lloyd Cueto in 2006, who was rated with a 54.40 in that category.
O'Gara said in response, "I am pleased and honored that the lawyers who have appeared before me in the thousands of cases I have handled as an associate judge overwhelmingly believe that I have the integrity, legal ability, temperament, impartiality and overall qualifications to serve as a circuit judge."
Evans said in a response that he does not believe in the validity of the results.
“A few dozen lawyers, out of 599 eligible, utilized this survey as a chance to achieve a political result," Evans stated. "Any conservative candidate not part of the St. Clair machine will be poorly treated. As they have done in the past, I anticipate that this poll result will be used to mislead the public about my abilities and temperament. I am well prepared to serve and be a good judge.”
|Recommended/not recommended||Meets requirements of office||Integrity||Impartiality||Legal ability||Temperament||Court management||Health||Sensitivity|