Three open circuit court seats in the Twentieth Judicial Circuit will be decided next week, in what are the most most competitive judicial contests seen for some years.
In one, Republican Paul Evans, the managing partner of an O'Fallon law firm who briefly served as a state representative for the 102nd District, is challenging Associate Judge John O'Gara for the at large position left open by the retiring Judge Vincent Lopinot.
Democrat O'Gara cites his experience since being appointed to the bench in 2016, the support and respect of the legal community, and his impartiality as the core elements that he hopes will lead to voters to elect him to as circuit court judge.
But Evans, who recognizes that he is disadvantaged by the historical strength of Democrats within the circuit, believes he is delivering the message that he is independent and free of any deep political affiliation.
"I am running as a Republican, but have always been my own man, self made, and not cognizant of political affiliations," Evans told the Record. O'Gara did not respond to requests for comment, including written questions.
Evan is upbeat about his own campaign, stating that he and his team have "stuck to our strategy and met our personal goals."
And one of those goals was to stir up stronger interest in the importance of judicial races, which he added "often gets overlooked."
It is, Evans said, important that there is an "informed electorate" and that people have a voice in a jurisdiction that "favors my opponent's party."
While noting that the odds are against him, Evans senses a greater understanding of the "interrelationship between judiciary and politics."
"This is not prior elections...which were fairly calm, where the candidates rode along, never being opposed," Evans said, adding that the greater use of social media has allowed underdogs to deliver their message more widely.
There is concern and a view among the public that political connections matter when it comes to the judiciary in Belleville and St. Clair County as a whole, Evans said.
"And it is not the most positive view," he added.
Evans received a "not recommended" rating from a poll of attorneys carried out by the Illinois State Bar Association, but the candidate said the poll is dominated by the political preferences of the legal community.
"There are thousands and thousands of lawyers, (so) this is not the (entire) Illinois bar association because only a small number voted," Evans said. A total of 129 voted on Evans' ability to do the job, marking him by various measures, and delivering a rating in the low to mid 60s.
Evans believes the Illinois Civil Justice League (ICJL) - made up mainly of trade and business groups - is less "biased," in that it endorses both Republican and Democratic candidates. Evans is "highly recommended" by the ICJL.
O’Gara, who is "recommended" by the ICJL and receiving ratings in the 90s in the ISBA survery, is from Caseyville. He was appointed associate judge in 2016, before which he was a public defender and criminal defense lawyer.
While O'Gara did not respond to the Record, he did deliver comprehensive answers to submitted questions with the ICJL.
He cited his experience on the bench as a key advantage over his opponent ahead of the Nov. 6 ballot.
"I have presided over 3,000 cases in my current courtroom assignment, reduced the case load by 40 percent, and currently, 97 percent of the cases on my docket were filed in 2017 or 2018," O'Gara said.
He added, "I have not been substituted on a pending case set for trial, nor has anyone appealed any of my rulings, bench trial verdicts or any of the three jury verdicts, one of which awarded close to $700,000 to the prevailing party."
"Regarding impartiality and temperament, since becoming a judge, I have not been substituted or asked to recuse myself before trial in over 3000 cases filed in my courtroom," he wrote.
"I endeavor every day to treat everyone with fairness, respect and dignity," O'Gara stated, then referencing, as he does in campaign ads, a quote by writer Maya Angelou that he keeps on the bench.
The quote, he said, "reminds me that people will forget what you do or what you say, but they will never forget how you made them feel."
O'Gara does want to see the increased deployment of new technology, including video, to save time for litigants and the court. He also hopes the Supreme Court, the legislature, and the bar committees will explore the concept of restorative justice, more mediation or arbitration.
The associate judge said "everyone agrees that frivolous, vexatious litigation has no place in our courts" because they "cheapen meritorious claims."