Republican Katherine Ruocco is pulling few punches in the last week of her long shot bid for a place on the bench as a Twentieth Judicial circuit judge.
A Belleville-based lawyer, Ruocco, who has self funded her campaign against Associate Judge Heinz Rudolf, is forceful in her criticism of what she believes is the way too cozy relationship between the legal community of Belleville and beyond, and the bench.
"Our current system appears fair at face value, but the establishment has created a system to control bench access which makes it difficult for anyone other than the elite and powerful to serve," Ruocco told the Record.
Circuit court candidate Katherine Ruocco | Facebook
But Rudolf, appointed associate judge a dozen years ago, believes he has the proven experience, and the "Integrity, impartiality and temperament" to step up to the position of circuit judge.
Rudolf did not respond to requests from the Record for comment, including answers to written questions, but did reply to a questionnaire sent out by the Illinois Civil Justice League (ICJL), which is mainly made up of trade and business groups.
Rudolf cites the high ratings in the Illinois State Bar Association (ISBA) poll of attorneys, regularly in the 90s, as an indicator of his experience, expertise, and the regard he is held within the legal community.
Ruocco, of Swansea and in private practice in Belleville for nearly 15 years and who received ratings in the teens and 20s, though only around 60 attorneys responded, says, "These are inaccurate, politically divisive evaluations, and an effort to influence judicial decisions."
The two are competing for a seat being vacated by the retiring Judge Jan V. Fiss.
"Politically motivated attorneys, who may benefit from the judicial decisions, essentially choose their 'favorite' judge who's good for business through the ISBA poll, and bankroll these judges' judicial campaigns to the tune this cycle of 76 percent," Ruocco said.
"The only way to fight this injustice is by spending tens of thousands of one's personal funds on a judicial campaign, which is difficult to do for many," Ruocco said, adding that this leads to "extreme limitation to bench access for independent and impartial judges."
According to illinoissunshine.org, the Committee to Elect Judge Rudolf has received the bulk of its contributions from law firms. As of the end of September, he had approximately $80,000 in the bank.
Ruocco is funding the campaign with her own money, amounting to a total of $127,000, including $20,000 since the start of October.
The attorney, who specializes in elder law, believes this judicial election is unique as three sitting associate judges are running for circuit judge, and that they in turn will choose the next associate judges, if elected.
"There will be no change to the status quo, and this is unacceptable," Ruocco said. "It's important for the independence and integrity of our judiciary to open bench access to others outside of the powerful and elite attorneys who work closely with the one-party rule establishment in St. Clair County."
Ruocco argues that, unlike her opponent, she will be "impartial and independent."
"In my opinion, judges who regularly hear cases of their campaign contributors, who essentially put them on the bench, are neither impartial or independent," she added.
On the ISBA survey, Ruocco said that they are "inaccurate, politically divisive evaluations, and an effort to influence judicial decisions."
"Politically motivated attorneys cast the majority of votes, and underrate those judicial candidates who are deemed 'bad for business'," she argues.
"I take little stock in a poll that rates Judge Michael N. Cook, convicted of heroin possession and felony weapons charges, a score of 96.39 for being 'fit for office'...I’ve never cast a ballot in this poll as I don’t believe in its integrity, said Ruocco, adding that she fully supports drug testing of judges.
While Rudolf is rated recommended by the ICJL and responded to its questionnaire, Ruocco did not receive a recommendation as it appears she did not send in any answers.
In his answers, Rudolf stated that he has "presided over a wide range of legal proceedings in both the civil and the criminal courts comprising thousands of cases, hundreds of bench trials and dozens of jury trials."
He added, "My judicial experience covers the entire spectrum of legal proceedings including major civil, criminal, chancery, arbitration, domestic violence, family, juvenile delinquency, DUI, traffic and small claims."
Rudolf said that, as a judge, he is "first and foremost faithful to the law."
"I base my rulings on the law rather than being swayed by who the litigant is or the attorney representing them," he wrote.
He is encouraged by recent reforms that may help decisions being handed down more quickly, and states that an experienced has "the tools to identify frivolous litigation."
"The key is making sure we choose Judges who have the proper experience and knowledge to properly use these tools," Rudolf stated. "I have the knowledge, experience and legal ability to recognize and address frivolous lawsuits."