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Judge Toomin, Justice Kilbride and the political threat to independent judges

Judges must be independent of the political process and independent of public opinion. The integrity of the rule of law depends upon this independence. 

Judge Michael Toomin attends the induction ceremony for 34 newly elected Cook County circuit judges at the Thompson Center in 2012.
Judge Michael Toomin attends the induction ceremony for 34 newly elected Cook County circuit judges at the Thompson Center in 2012.
Brian Jackson/Sun-Times Media

Since the founding of this nation, judicial independence has been an essential cornerstone of our judicial system. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist Paper no. 78, “There is no liberty, if the power of judging be not separated from the legislative and executive powers.”

Judicial independence may be under attack from both sides of the political spectrum as this year’s election approaches. On one hand, the Cook County Democratic Party took the unusual step of opposing the retention of long-tenured Judge Michael Toomin. On the other, the state Republican Party is targeting Justice Thomas Kilbride of the Illinois Supreme Court.

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We are the Northern Illinois Committee of the American College of Trial Lawyers, an organization dedicated to supporting the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. We do not endorse any judicial candidates, including these two judges. But we feel compelled to write when judicial independence is under attack.

We are concerned that the actions to unseat Judge Toomin and Justice Kilbride may be motivated by politics or disagreement with some of the decisions they have rendered on the bench, rather than by legitimate concerns about their qualifications to serve. Toomin has served for over 40 years, both on the Circuit Court and the Appellate Court. Kilbride has served on the Illinois Supreme Court for 20 years, including as Chief Justice. Both men have consistently received high ratings from the bar associations that review judicial candidates.

The Democratic Party has asserted that its decision about Judge Toomin concerns his temperament. But many lawyers suspect that the decision is based instead upon disagreement with Toomin’s appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the actions of the state’s attorney’s office in the Jussie Smollett affair. Republican Party officials opposing retention of Justice Kilbride cite his decisions on such issues as pension reform, tort reform and term limits.

If the current opposition to Judge Toomin or Justice Kilbride arises from disagreement with decisions they have made on the bench, that is a threat to judicial independence.

It could be said that the mark of a good judge is that no one agrees with her decisions all of the time. Judges must be independent of the political process and independent of public opinion. The integrity of the rule of law depends upon this independence. We fear the consequences for judicial independence if we allow politics to control the retention of qualified judges.

Terri Mascherin, chair, Northern Illinois Committee, American College of Trial Lawyers

Honesty and the Fair Tax

I write regarding Matt Paprocki’s recent op-ed on the Fair Tax. It is an excellent laugh. Without a touch of irony, Paprocki, of the Illinois Policy Institute, writes that, “In more than half of progressive tax states, the middle class pays the maximum state income tax rate.”

Mr. Paprocki, we middle class Illinois residents already pay the maximum state income tax rate — it’s a flat tax. Everyone pays the same rate. Let’s talk honestly.

Again, without a scintilla of irony, he quotes a retired CPD officer: “They’re in the hole for billions. How do you think they’ll get that money? They’re going to take it out of my pocket, your pocket and everyone else’s pocket. And they’re lying when they tell you they’re not.”

I’d be interested to hear Mr. Paprocki explain that there are two options for dealing with that billion-dollar hole in a flat-tax state: Either that retired officer takes a drastically reduced pension check, or he pays taxes on his pension check.

A third option is to implement a progressive income tax and tax wealthier people, like the Illinois Policy Institute’s benefactors, at higher rate. Let’s talk honestly.

Tony Kolt, Chicago

Lightfoot and Ferguson

Is Mayor Lori Lightfoot trying to commit political suicide? She campaigned on a platform of reform, transparency and good government. Bad enough she seems to be delinquent on her alleged pet project, police reform, given the department’s agonizingly slow rate of compliance. Now she’s threatening not to reappoint Inspector General Joe Ferguson, arguably the most effective advocate for the public interest that Chicago has seen.

His department has documented inefficiencies, compliance failures and wrongful spending in the millions of dollars. We need more of him, not less. And if the mayor is as wise as she wants us to believe, she’ll squelch all such rumors.

In the beginning, she praised him effusively, backing him all the way. Now that she herself is on the hot seat, suddenly an about face? It makes students of Chicago politics wonder whether he’s onto something, beyond his recent criticisms of her administration, that she prefers to keep hidden? Politics is a brutal business, but such a move could backfire fatally.

Ted Z. Manuel, Hyde Park