Madison County GOP chairman Jeremy Plank has called for the appointment of more Republicans at the Third Judicial Circuit to more closely reflect the county’s “political landscape” and to help shed its reputation as a “judicial hellhole.”
In a statement released Friday, Plank said he finds it “troubling” that Republican applicants for associate judge positions have been passed over now 16 times in a row during the selection process, with only two appointments in the past 23 years and none in the past 12 years.
His call for more balance comes in the wake of last week’s selection of Edwardsville personal injury attorney Ron Foster, Democrat, to the associate judge vacancy of Donald Flack, who left for private practice at Armstrong Teasdale in St. Louis.
Another recent appointment of a Democrat applicant came after Associate Judge Luther Simmons resigned two years into his four-year term to join the national asbestos firm Simmons Hanly Conroy based in Alton.
Madison County’s asbestos docket – which handles the largest volume of cases of any court in the country – was built largely upon filings from the Simmons firm. More than 90 percent of asbestos claims brought to Madison County are on behalf of out-of-state plaintiffs, a statistic that has shaped the court’s reputation as a judicial hellhole by critics from the American Tort Reform Association.
Upon Simmons’ exit in January, judges of the Third Circuit replaced him with attorney Ryan Jumper, Democrat, who came from the personal injury firm headed by longtime Democratic attorney Lance Callis, father of former chief judge Ann Callis.
Of the 22 sitting judges (nine circuit and 13 associate) in the Third Judicial Circuit, just two are Republicans – Associate Judge Stephen Stobbs, who was appointed by circuit’s elected judges in 2006 and Circuit Judge David Dugan, who was appointed to a vacancy by the Illinois Supreme Court last year. Dugan seeks election in November to the position he currently holds.
The only other appointment of a Republican to the associate bench in recent history occurred in 1995 when James Hackett was appointed to a seat, which he filled through 2013.
From Blue to Red
According to recent election results, Madison County’s electorate has been trending more conservative.
In the last two presidential elections, voters have favored Republican candidates. Mitt Romney edged Barack Obama 49 to 48 percent in 2012 and Donald Trump more decisively defeated Hillary Clinton 54 to 38 percent in 2016.
The County Board also turned Democrat to Republican majority for the first time in decades in 2016.
“It really is hard to believe that in a county where Republicans are in the majority less than 10 percent of the judges are Republicans,“ Plank said.
Associate judges are elected by circuit judges in a process of secret voting on a pool of candidates who submitted applications to the Administrative Office of Illinois Courts. Those selected serve four-year terms, after which they can be reappointed by the circuit judges or be removed by them in another secret vote.
In 2015, five associate judge openings occurred simultaneously when the circuit’s nine elected circuit court judges did not reappoint five of 13 associate judges to new terms. Those included Duane L. Bailey, Ben L. Beyers, II, David Grounds, Elizabeth Levy and Flack, who later re-applied and was appointed.
Plank said that nearly 50 candidates, including several “highly respected Republican lawyers,” applied for the five vacancies but no Republicans were chosen for any of the openings.
“If our county is going to shake its reputation as a judicial hellhole the judiciary needs more balance,” he said. “Two Republican judges out of 22 total does not reflect the political makeup of a county with a Republican majority.”
Plank went on to criticize the appointment process as one that selects “nearly all” applicants from either the State’s Attorney’s office or from firms “owned by wealthy Democrat attorneys.”
“Republicans are simply underrepresented on the bench in Madison County and our elected circuit judges need to use these vacancies to show the electorate that they value balance in the judiciary and want to improve the image of our court system,” Plank said.
Plank’s call for more Republicans on the bench echoes similar calls made by former GOP chair and current county Treasurer Chris Slusser who was critical of the selection process in 2015.
"The circuit judges made it very clear that to get an appointment you obviously have to be a Democrat or be an associate from a major asbestos firm," Slusser said in 2015. "No one else need apply."
Chief Judge Dave Hylla, Democrat, has been contacted for comment, but had not yet returned a call.
Of the 14 attorneys who submitted applications for the Flack vacancy, at least three were Republicans - Andrew Carruthers, partner at HeplerBroom and former Madison County GOP chair, as well as current board member of the Illinois State Board of Elections; Christopher Threlkeld, partner at Lucco, Brown, Threlkeld, & Dawson in Edwardsville and Robert Robison, a Collinsville attorney.
Other candidates with Democrat voting records who applied were Timothy D. Berkley, Derek Filcoff, Ellen Burford, Angela Donohoo, Leslie A. Wood, David J. Ezra, Paul A. Marks, Kelly C. Sullivan and Illinois appellate prosecutor David W. Rands.
Attorney Tanja M. Cook with Lueders, Robertson & Konzen in Granite City, whose voting record appears apolitical, also applied.
The Illinois Republican Party will hold county conventions on Wednesday at which precinct committee men and women will vote for county chairs and pick state Central Committee representatives.
Madison County Chairman Kurt Prenzler is challenging Plank for chairmanship of the county GOP.
Prenzler’s ally, attorney and former appointed circuit judge Don Weber, criticized Plank’s leadership saying he should have been more of an advocate for Republican attorneys seeking associate judgeships in previous vacancies.
Weber said Plank was only raising the issue about the lack of political diversity on the bench because it’s “two days before convention.”
“This issue has been raised on the executive board (of the county GOP) under his tenure and they have done nothing,” Weber said. “They should have been supporting good candidates for associate judge but have either been too timid or too distracted to have acted.”