Voters never have bounced an incumbent Illinois Supreme Court justice in a retention (up-or-down) election. Could Election 2010 change that?
An Associated Press article raises that possibility. It reports that “politics is beginning to spill into simple judicial races that never used to be contested,” and the retention election facing Justice Thomas Kilbride is an example. The article cites the Justice at Stake Campaign to back up its conclusion.
Poised to take over soon as chief justice, the 57-year-old jurist is encountering opposition from business interests who want to deny him re-election. The Illinois Civil Justice League, leading the ouster drive, is critical of his record. A major sore point for ICJL is a high court decision he supported; it declared unconstitutional a law limiting the sums that doctors and hospitals could be sued for (see Gavel Grab).
“We’re going to raise as much as we can to help remove Judge Kilbride,” pledged Ed Murnane, an ICJL leader. He also is treasurer for JUSTPAC, a group taking aim at judges who it finds unfriendly to business. Murnane said a media blitz will be launched against Justice Kilbride in October.
Justice Kilbride said, “It’s a very awkward situation.” He added, “I can’t match any amount of money they’re talking about spending, and we’re going to have to work extra hard to make sure we get the facts out.”
In a TV ad, Justice Kilbride touts himself as “not a politician” but as a judge who has tried to be fair and even-handed.
In such other states as Iowa, Kansas and Colorado, retention elections for state supreme court justices also have heated up, in response to controversial rulings. The AP article says some groups have raised concerns about eroding public trust in fair and impartial courts:
“The tactic shifts heated public policy debates from legislative races to the smaller realm of courthouses, leaving some judicial experts worried about the impact on public confidence in the courts and perceptions that judges may be partial or vulnerable to deep-pocketed special interests.
“‘Retention races are getting dragged in. This is truly something we’ve never seen before,’ said Charles Hall of the Justice at Stake Campaign, a nonpartisan tracker of campaign spending in judicial elections.”
The article also notes a dramatic increase in spending on judicial elections in the past decade. Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice, the National Institute on Money in State Politics and Hofstra law professor James Sample have authored a report documenting this trend, entitled “The New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2000-2009: Decade of Change.”