Where’s the outrage in appellate judge races?

January 29, 2010|By Allen Adomite, vice president of the Illinois Civil Justice League

On Tuesday, Illinois voters will elect six appellate court justices across Illinois. Never mind that the general election isn’t for another nine months. Thanks to the partisan nature of Illinois’ judicial election system, we are certain to elect three Democrats and three Republicans in the primary election.

And, despite the fact that “big business” groups — including JUSTPAC, my organization’s political action committee — have scarcely written a single check in the 2010 primary cycle, the 20 appellate court candidates running for these six spots have raised almost $2 million.

Pardon the cynicism, but where’s the outrage from the media and good government groups?

Despite the lack of an antagonist, the state’s personal injury lawyers are fueling campaigns with their contributions, dropping tens of thousands of dollars on appellate court candidates Thomas Hogan and James R. Epstein (in Cook County) and Mary Schostok in the 2nd District Appellate Court. Another candidate, Mary Katherine Rochford (in Cook County), is partially self-funding with funds from her trial lawyer husband.

Thousands of dollars have found their way from the checking accounts of asbestos lawyers, such as the Alton-based asbestos trial lawyer firm SimmonsCooper, to the campaign bank accounts of Hogan and Epstein. (It’s 280 miles up Interstate Highway 55 from East Alton to Chicago, in case you were wondering.) Partners at the trial lawyer firm of Cooney & Conway have given more than $70,000 to these campaigns.Trial lawyer Michael Schostok lent his wife’s campaign $108,000. His law partner Patrick Salvi contributed another $12,000. Clifford Law Offices recently chipped in $10,000 and Power Rogers & Smith donated $5,000. Schostok’s opponent, Donna Kelly, has raised $5,075 total.

This is why it almost seems ideologically pure for Judge Rochford and her husband, trial lawyer Michael Demetrio, to fund her campaign with — at last check — $185,000. That wasn’t even a loan — they don’t even expect to get that money back. The top five appellate campaigns have raised more than $1.5 millioncombined, with the Epstein campaign leading the pack at $483,350 (two-thirds of that total — or $326,000 — was raised in the past 14 days).

Candidates Ann Jorgensen and Mary Schostok rank behind Epstein with $423,646 and $292,939 respectively (although, Jorgensen received a $284,000 loan from a relative). Hogan and Rochford complete the top five with $187,500 and $185,000, respectively.

I’m sure the stories sound much better when “big business battles the trial lawyers” for the future of the courts. But, despite the lack of donor antagonism, the theme for 2010 remains the same: Personal injury lawyers in Illinois will stop at nothing to elect their handpicked candidates to Illinois’ higher courts. It’s true in four of five contested appellate court races Tuesday.

And, thanks to the partisanship in these judicial races, general election voters will get zero opportunity to correct this trend.

That’s right: zero.

And of 24 judicial contests throughout Cook County, only one race will have competition in the general election. But there is no opposition in appellate races.

Once again this spring, the Illinois Civil Justice League will suggest to legislators an easy change to help balance judicial elections in Illinois: Remove partisan labels from judicial contests.

Is there really anymore evidence needed to support this simple — but logical — change?