The Supreme Court understands that judicial campaign contributions
can create conflicts of interest in the nation's legal system. Why
can't Illinois lawmakers?
In a 5-4 ruling today,
the high court ruled that elected judges must recuse themselves from
The Supreme Court understands that judicial campaign contributions can create conflicts of interest in the nation's legal system. Why can't Illinois lawmakers?
In a 5-4 ruling today, the high court ruled that elected judges must recuse themselves from cases when large campaign contributions from interested parties create the appearance of bias. The case originated in West Virginia, where coal giant Massey Energy Co. -- appealing a verdict in a dispute with a local coal company -- donated $3 million dollars to help elect State Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin to the bench. Benjamin just happened to preside over their case. Refusing to step down, he was part of a 3-2 decision to overturn the verdict in Massey's favor. "Just as no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority opinion, "similar fears of bias can arise when -- without the consent of the other parties -- a man chooses the judge in his own cause."
As in West Virginia, Illinois judicial races have been hotly contested -- and expensive -- in recent years. As David Morrison of the Illinois Coalition for Political Reform (ICPR) reminds us, the most expensive state Supreme Court campaign in history was fought in Illinois' 5th Judicial District in 2004, when groups spent a combined $9.3 million. Two years later, the record was broken for an Illinois Appellate Court race as well, with $3.35 million flowing to the candidates.
Yet lawmakers have failed to take comprehensive steps to protect against potential abuse. This year, Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago) introduced SB 2144, which would have created a voluntary public financing system for Illinois Supreme Court and Appellate Court judicial elections. Although similar bills had passed the Senate in previous sessions, this version ended up lodged in the Executive Committee.
In the meantime, both chambers approved an amendment to the larger campaign finance bill creating a task force to study the merits of implementing a public financing system for judicial races. But that committee isn't scheduled to report back to the governor until 2012 -- well after the next round of elections, in which four of the seven Illinois Supreme Courts seats will be up for grabs.
That timeline is problematic, according to ICPR director Cindi Canary. "That is a branch of government under incredible threat from special interest contributions," she told us in March, "and I think that as we look to 2010, there’s a possibility of some real problems." Thanks to the Supreme Court, there is now a solid precedent protecting the rights of all people to a fair trial, regardless of a judge's political connections. Illinois lawmakers shouldn't kick the issue down the road another three years.
Image used under a Creative Commons license by Flickr user myoldpostcards.