Gov. Bruce Rauner touched a real nerve this week when he declared the Illinois Supreme Court is part of a “corrupt system.”
We doubt the governor, who has a penchant for barbed indictments, can point to a single specific Court decision that clearly was bought by a campaign donor’s money. But he makes an excellent point that the millions of dollars from special interests that flow into judicial elections should make cynics of us all. It just ain’t healthy.
It’s well past time that Springfield — the governor, the General Assembly and the Court — formally explore a better way to put judges on the Supreme Court, appellate and circuit benches. Illinois is one of only seven states in which high court justices are chosen in partisan elections.
Merit selection of judges, the favored alternative of reformers, eliminates the need to raise campaign funds. Judges are beholden to nobody’s wallet. Merit systems usually involve a commission that produces a list of qualified names from which political leaders or voters select new judges. But efforts to amend the Illinois Constitution to allow merit selection have fizzled.
In recent elections, the amount of money poured into judicial races would embarrass a bagman from the 1980s Operation Greylord court scandal. Crain’s Chicago Business reported the parent company of Philip Morris USA contributed $500,000 last October to a Republican Party group just after the Illinois Supreme Court agreed to hear the company’s appeal of a $10.1 billion verdict. Then, surprise, the Republican State Leadership Committee poured $950,000 into campaign ads for Republican Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier’s retention. Karmeier had voted to overturn the appeal at an earlier stage in the process.
Back in 2004, Republican Karmeier and his Democratic opponent spent nearly $10 million fighting for the seat that Karmeier won.
Last year, the Sun-Times reported that six of the seven Illinois Supreme Court justices who will rule on Illinois’ new pension reform law received close to a combined $3 million in campaign contributions from those with a stake in the outcome.
While we’re at it, Illinois should reform the way judges get to stay on the bench. The way it works now, judges once elected don’t have to run in competitive races ever again; they just have to run for retention, in which they keep their jobs if 60 percent of the voters approve them. It’s a joke. In Cook County, no judge, not even the most incompetent, has been voted off the bench in more than 20 years. The percentage of votes required for retention should be increased.
From cases of petty crime to big constitutional questions, judicial decisions go down better with the public when there is no checkbook in the courtroom.