Plank and Mudge
The lack of diversity of thought on Madison County's bench - by way of political affiliation - has the local GOP considering battle with those who get to pick the majority of judges at the Third Judicial Circuit.
Madison County GOP Chair Jeremy Plank made the announcement in response to the latest associate judge appointment, Veronica Armouti, a Democrat who was selected earlier this month by the circuit's elected judges. Armouti was picked to replace associate judge Jennifer Hightower, the only one of 13 associate judges not picked in June to serve a successive four-year term.
Plank called the associate judge selection process in Madison County - not just Armouti's - "a complete waste of time for any Republican hoping to get the nod."
The Third Judicial Circuit, which includes Madison and Bond counties, is served by nine elected circuit judges who vote on the selection of the circuit's 13 associate judges. Of the total 22, two are Republican - Associate Judge Stephen Stobbs and Circuit Judge David Dugan, who was elected in 2018 by a 52-48 margin over Democrat Marc Parker.
Plank said the last time a Republican was picked to serve as associate judge was in 2006, with Stobbs' appointment. Since then, he said, Republican applicants have been passed over 18 times. He added that only two GOP appointments have occurred in the past 24 years, and none in the past 13 years.
"It’s hard to believe that in a county where Republicans are in the majority, less than 10 percent of the judges are Republicans," Plank stated. "The party has stayed out of retention campaigns in the past. However, we may re-evaluate this, if the tone-deafness continues.”
Chief Judge Bill Mudge, a Democrat first elected circuit judge in 2010, pushed back, saying that applicants for associate judge are not asked to disclose party affiliation during the application process, "nor should they be," he said.
"Rather the application is focused on the applicant’s personal, professional and occupational background, including their trial and appellate experience," Mudge stated.
"In the past my colleagues and I have received letters of recommendation from local, county, state and federal elected officials – from both sides of the political aisle - as well as from business, political and labor organizations. What weight, if any, is given to those endorsements is up to each individual circuit judge."
Plank takes particular issue with the training ground Democrat associate judges come from.
“It seems that nearly all of the associate judges appointed in the past 13 years have come from either the State’s Attorney’s office or one of the local plaintiff’s firms owned by wealthy Democrat attorneys," Plank said. "Republicans are grossly underrepresented on the bench in Madison County and our elected circuit judges need to use these vacancies to show that they value balance and diversity of thought in our court system.”
He pointed to 2015 as a missed opportunity for selecting "highly respected" Republicans onto the associate bench, when five vacancies simultaneously occurred.
"Nearly 50 candidates, including several highly respected Republican lawyers, applied for the vacancies," Plank stated. "No Republican was chosen for any of those five openings. Last year there were two associate judge vacancies and both were filled by attorneys who were active in the Madison County Democrat Party and employed by plaintiff’s law firms."
In the release issued by the GOP, County board member Mike Walters, who also serves as chairman of the Judiciary committee, states "we have bent over backwards to work with the judiciary to add more balance and diversity of opinion to the court. When I tell people that only 2 of 22 judges in the Circuit are Republicans, even Democrats are shocked."
The county has indeed been trending Republican, as seen in the most recent general elections: In 2014, Madison County voters gave former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner a 12 point-margin victory over Democrat incumbent Pat Quinn, while the state favored Rauner by just a four-point margin. In 2016, Madison County voters gave President Trump a 15-point margin win over Hillary Clinton, while voters across the state gave almost the same margin to Clinton. In 2018, even with Rauner getting trounced statewide by a 16-point margin, Madison County voters sided with the troubled Republican governor by a 1.7 point margin over victor, J.B. Pritzker.
Mudge, who in 2016 easily won his first and only retention race so far with 71 percent voter approval, won't face a retention vote again until 2022.
He took issue with the GOP's complaint regarding the associate bench being dominated by former assistant state's attorneys and from the plaintiffs' bar.
"...Veronica Armouti is not a product of the state’s attorney’s office nor a local plaintiff’s firm, rather she is a product of well-respected local civil defense firms and served on the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Responsibility, Board of Nursing, for four years under Governor Bruce Rauner’s administration," Mudge stated.
"She possesses the requisite legal experience and educational background to make her well-qualified for the position of associate judge. I trust she will be a fine addition to the bench. I do not know if Veronica Armouti is affiliated with a particular political party."
According to county voting records, Armouti pulls Democrat ballots in primary elections.
Mudge also said that both Plank and Walters know him personally and have worked with him and his fellow circuit judges.
"Both should know from their own experience that we are fair and impartial and that our judicial decisions are not guided by partisan politics," Mudge said.
The only circuit judges facing retention in next year's election are Richard Tognarelii, 70, of Troy, and Dennis Ruth, 58, of Collinsville.
In 2008, Tognarelli was elected to the seat that had been held by former judge Ed Ferguson, and Ruth was elected to the seat held by former judge Nicholas Byron.
They were both unopposed on the Democratic ticket. And, in their first and only retention races in 2014, they won: Togarelli by a 67-33 margin and Ruth by a 66-34 margin. At least 60 percent voter approval is required to be retained.
Prior to first being elected, Tognarelli served as an associate judge from 2002. Ruth worked as an arbitrator in the Illinois' Workers Compensation system.