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Supreme Court: 4 battle for Supreme Court seat

Illinois Supreme Court Candidate Joy Cunningham meets with Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board Tuesday, January 24, 2012. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

The March 20 race for a vacancy on the Illinois Supreme Court might be more important than any other on the ballot.

The state’s highest court settles matters that can reach into communities throughout Illinois. For example, the court’s seven justices decided whether Rahm Emanuel could legally run for Chicago mayor. The court has stepped in to prevent the executions of men who turned out to be innocent. At some point the justices may rule whether future pension benefits can be trimmed for thousands of current state employees.

The only vacancy on the court in this election is in District One, which covers Cook County. Three experienced judges and one lawyer are running for the 10-year seat, which could be pivotal in future court decisions.

The three experienced judges are Joy Virginia Cunningham, 60; Aurelia Marie Pucinski, 64, and Mary Jane Theis, 63, all of Chicago. The lawyer is Thomas W. Flannigan, 59, of Winnetka.

Theis, a onetime public defender, was appointed to the Supreme Court seat vacated in 2010 by Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald, who retired early because of Parkinson’s disease. Theis, who now hopes to win the seat outright, has been a judge for nearly three decades. She was a Cook County judge from 1983 to 1993, and an appellate judge from then until her Supreme Court appointment.

Cunningham was appointed associate Cook County judge in 1997 and was elected to the Illinois Appellate Court in 2006. She also touts her private-sector experience; she was general counsel and corporate secretary of Northwestern Memorial HealthCare and chief counsel for health care at Loyola University. She also was the first black woman to be president of the Chicago Bar Association.

Pucinski, a Circuit Court judge from 2004 to 2010, won a seat on the Illinois Appellate Court two years ago, beating the Democrat-endorsed candidate.

Flannigan has no experience on the bench, but he has a strong background in international law. His wife, Ellen L. Flannigan, has been a Cook County judge in the 12th Judicial Subcircuit since 2006.

Theis and Cunningham have split most of the endorsements. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is backing Theis, who got the Democratic organization’s endorsement as well. Cunningham is backed by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

Pucinski doesn’t have the big-time endorsements, but she easily has the best name recognition in the race. Her father, Roman Pucinski, was a popular congressman and a Northwest Side alderman. She was a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner from 1984 to 1988. She beat both former Chicago Mayor Jane M. Byrne and former Ald. Edward R. Vrdolyak to become Cook County Circuit Court clerk in 1988 and was twice re-elected. She ran for Cook County Board president in 1998 – as a Republican – but lost to John Stroger. She might even have become Illinois governor, but in 1986 lost her race for secretary of state to Lyndon LaRouche-backed candidate Janice Hart, which helped to take down that year’s entire Democratic ticket. The eventual winner of that seat, Jim Edgar, did go on to become governor.

Theis and Cunningham have received the higher ratings from the Chicago Bar Association, the Illinois State Bar Association and the Chicago Council of Lawyers. Pucinski was rated “qualified” by the CBA, but “not recommended” by the Chicago Council and “not qualified” by the state bar association. Flannigan was rated “not qualified” or “not recommended” by all three groups.

Pucinski has been trying to make the case that Theis, as the Democrat-endorsed candidate, will be too beholden to party insiders.

“In this particular race, the combination of money and political influence has been very, very exceptional,” Pucinski said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board. “I have been watching politics for a time, and I have never seen anything like it. . . . [If I were a citizen] I would be saying: I want the most independent person I can get on the Supreme Court, because tough, tough issues are going to face this court.”

Cunningham also said voters have reason to be cynical: “I’ve seen political influence present in this race, and I think that the public has a right to feel that people who sit on their courts, especially the state’s highest court, sit there free from political influences and insider influences.”

But Theis pointed to the unanimous court decision favoring Emanuel’s candidacy as evidence that justices follow the law, not politics. “I think it’s a great signal to the people of the state about the independence of the judiciary,” Theis said.

Theis said she sought party slating because it could help her to get out the message that she has been consistently rated a highly qualified jurist over the years and that “I have unquestioned integrity.

“I needed to be able to put my credentials before people and tell my story,” she said.

Flannigan said he avoids feeding voter cynicism by refusing to take any campaign contributions.

“I think too much money is being spent, and it can cause many problems,” he wrote on the Sun-Times candidate questionnaire. “One way to deal with this is give the rare candidate who will not take contributions a chance.”

In the fall, the winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican Judge James Riley, who was rated “qualified” by the CBA and state bar association and “not qualified” by the Chicago Council of Lawyers.