Justice Thomas Kilbride and the fight against money buying judicial power in Illinois

Justice Thomas Kilbride and the fight against money buying judicial power in Illinois
Thomas Kilbride.jpg

If you ask the Chamber of Commerce, money equals justice.

Justice should be blind. However, in Illinois, money equals justice, since we elect our judges to the bench. Our judges must be retained to keep their seat on the bench. Illinois supreme court justices are elected to terms of 10 years. Every ten years, supreme court judges must stand for retention, where 60% of the ballots cast must vote to retain a particular judge.

Illinois has seen the influence of money on elections to our supreme court in recent years and 2010 is no different. Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride is facing a challenge from the well funded Illinois Civil Justice League. Ed Murnane, the head of the Illinois Civil Justice League recently said “our central issue is to remove Thomas Kilbride from the bench. We will do whatever we feels is legal and we will be using whatever means necessary and whatever issues will have an impact on voters.”

What is Justice Kilbride’s sin? He was one of the four justices who voted to strike down the Illinois law in favor of capping medical malpractice non-economic awards at $500,000.00 (the propriety of the ruling is another post, but having represented a family’s whose mother was in a local emergency room and mistakenly given a drug administered in executions- a drug that paralyzes the body, including the heart and lungs- rather than the prescribed medication to help her nausea, a $500,000.00 award to the family for the loss of their mother due to the hospital’s negligence seems wholly inadequate). So now JUSTPAC, the political action committee for the Illinois Civil Justice League has vowed to make Justice Kilbride pay for his ruling.

JUSTPAC has collected over $600,000.00 from doctors, insurance companies and corporations recently, with its largest donation coming from the United States Chamber of Commerce. Murnane said all of that money will go toward the Kilbride campaign.

That interest groups can pour in money in an attempt to sway judicial elections in Illinois is not only frightening but wrong. Judges will not be able to rule based solely upon their interpretation of the law, but rather will have to think of the political ramifications of a ruling as he or she interprets the law. Justice cannot be blind if our judges are peeking from behind the blindfold to see if JUSTPAC is lining up against them.

There is a history for huge sums of special interest money being spent of Illinois Supreme Court races. Justice Lloyd Karmeier- who dissented (or was against) on the recent ruling capping non-economic damage awards at $500,000.00- had a $4.7 million campaign fund for that seat, with JUSTPAC being the largest contributor to that fund. The $4.7 million was more than amounts spent in United States senate races that year and was generally seen as a low point in judicial and legal circles- politicizing judicial rulings (the book, The Appeal, by John Grisham, could have been based loosely upon Lloyd Karmeier’s election to the bench.

Today, JUSTPAC’s argument against Justice Kilbride is seen within the context of the 2004 race. On the radio is an ad, purchased by JUSTPAC, where an actor portrays Paul Runge, a man convicted of sexual assault. The actor portraying Runge says: “I was convicted of sexual assault on a woman and her 10-year-old daughter. Then I slashed their throats and burned them…. Unfortunately, for felons like us, other justices overruled Kilbride and our convictions stood.”

The ads have been called way out of bounds, completely distorting individual rulings and Kilbride as a justice. “It is just terrible, appalling. I wasn’t always a supporter of Tom Kilbride, but this portrayal of him as hostile to law enforcement just is not true,” said Timothy Slavin, a former state’s attorney and Whiteside County circuit judge.

If you live in the Illinois 3rd District (which stretches from the Mississippi River to Indiana, including areas of Naperville, Joliet, Peoria and Kankakee), justice demands a vote for Kilbride’s retention. Although the Chicago Tribune was against the ruling striking non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases, the paper strongly endorsed Thomas Kilbride’s candidacy out of the Tribune’s belief that retention should be used to remove incompetent judges or corrupt judges, not as revenge for an adverse legal ruling.

Illinois needs to change the rule allowing direct balloting of judges. Illinois is in the minority of states that allow for direct balloting- as 34 states have a merit system in place providing for judicial retention. Unfortunately, that issue is not on the November ballot, only the retention of Thomas Kilbride. If you live within the boundaries of the Third Judicial Circuit and have an opportunity to vote to retain Justice Kilbride, please take the opportunity to do so. Judicial impartiality requires it.

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