Gavel Grab

Lawyers Seek to Depose Illinois Judge in Racketeering Lawsuit

Lawyers engaged in a federal racketeering lawsuit in Illinois are pushing to question under oath an unusual witness: Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier. The justice’s successful election in 2004 is central to the litigation.

According to commentary in the Sun-Times by Brett Chase of The Better Government Association, the lawsuit in federal court alleges that  State Farm, the insurance company, “secretly funded most of Karmeier’s campaign by channeling as much as $4 million in donations primarily through other groups.”

The commentary adds that State Farm ”acknowledged that employees and others affiliated with the company gave about $350,000 to Karmeier’s 2004 campaign, but the company denies allegations of filtering additional money through satellite organizations.” Read more

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Top Illinois Judge Touts Importance of Judicial Diversity

honritagarmanIllinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Rita Garman discussed the importance of diversity in the judiciary when she addressed a local audience in Bloomington, Il. this week.

“We need judges who are from all parts of society,” Justice Garman told the McLean County League of Women Voters, according to The (Bloomington) Pantagraph. It is important for people who enter the courtroom to see judges of diverse backgrounds, she said. ”The justice system must not only be fair but be perceived to be fair,” Justice Garman said.

To learn about Justice at Stake’s work to increase diversity on the bench, see the JAS web page about this issue.

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JAS on Historic Illinois Supreme Court Race: ‘A Harbinger’

Justice Karmeier

Justice Karmeier

With some news media attention beginning to focus on a possible retention (up-or-down) election bid by Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier this year, Justice at Stake was quoted about the historic and costly 2004 race in which he first was elected.

“The Karmeier race turned out to be a harbinger of a trend that unfortunately has spread across the nation,” Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg told the Madison-St. Clair Record. The candidates raised $9.3 million, a national record at the time for a two-candidate race.

While retention elections typically have been less costly than contested elections, justices in some states have begun engaging in serious fundraising for retention elections. “I think the jury is still out on whether retention races will be overcome in the way (general) elections have been,” Brandenburg said.

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Diversity Milestone Marked for Illinois Appellate Courts

Judge Laura Liu of Cook County Circuit Court was to make history today when she assumes a seat on the Illinois first appellate court district, thereby becoming the first Asian American to sit on state appellate court.

Judge Liu is a former president of the Illinois Judges’ Association and a former president of the Chinese American Bar Association, according to Huffington Post.

“I know that I have a lot to learn and that this will be a new challenge,” Judge Liu said. “Having the support of experienced mentors that I respect and admire made all the difference in shaping my idea of how I wanted to serve in the courtroom.” Read more

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Ex-Judge: ‘No Question’ Campaign Cash Influences Courts

Just how much does it undermine public trust in impartial courts when members of a state Supreme Court have raked in millions of dollars in donations tied to stakeholders in a controversial case?

The Chicago Sun-Times pursued this question in a package of articles and an accompanying editorial surrounding the possibility the Illinois Supreme Court may ultimately consider a lawsuit challenging a historic pension-reform law.

According to one Sun-Times article, six of the court’s seven justice have received nearly a combined $3 million tied to stakeholders with an interest in the case, including business groups, labor unions, and a political committee controlled by state House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Democrat.

“Even the most honorable justice has to acknowledge this looks bad. It puts them in a bad light,” said David Yepsen,  director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. Read more

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Friday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz is to be the focus of an upcoming book as well as a feature film by the producer of the award-winning “Hot Coffee”– a 2011 film that featured a segment on Diaz. The Sun Herald reports that the movie will chronicle the challenges mounted against Diaz by political and business interests whose priority was out-spending and unseating the justice.
  • The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously confirmed three nominees for federal judgeships in Illinois on Wednesday. The Associated Press reports that the nominees will face a confirmation hearing before the full Senate later this year.
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Chicago Law Students Get Up-Close View of Life on the Bench

The University of Chicago Law School was visited by five judges this past year as part of the school’s new Distinguished Visiting Jurists program.

According to the Law School Office of Communications, the program is designed to give students an inside view of the judiciary and the role judges play.

The five visiting judges each gave a lunch talk about their experiences on the bench.

“Judges reinforce, supplement, and challenge what students get in the classroom, and the judges get to speak to some of the best soon-to-be lawyers in the country. We’ve learned a great deal from the judges this year, and we hope they have learned from us as well,” said Professor Lior Strahilevitz, who organized the speaker series.

Judge Thomas L. Ambro of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Thomas B. Griffith of the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Gary Feinerman of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Judge Reena Raggi of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and Judge Robert Sack of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals all spoke during the Sidebar: Conversations with the Bench workshop.

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Political Consultants a Driving Force Behind Chicago Judicial Races

State judicial elections are often tricky to navigate, and even more so for candidates with little to no experience running a political campaign. Because of this, business in Illinois is booming for political consultants, says the Chicago Tribune.

When Terrence Lavin, former president of the Illinois State Bar Association, wanted to run for a vacancy on the Illinois Appellate Court, he hired campaign consultants Michael Tierney and Wallace “Gator” Bradley to assist in his campaign. Lavin later won the election in November 2012.

According to the article, there is growing concern about the influence of political consultants in the state’s judicial elections. Watchdog groups fear that the process will become more political as more money pours into campaigns. Read more

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OR, CA, IL Courts Hurting from Scarcity of Funding

While defenders of federal courts have spoken frequently in the past few weeks about a need for greater funding, court systems at the state level are also experiencing dire consequences from smaller budgets.

In Oregon, layoffs have led to overflowing caseloads and shuttered courthouses, an Oregonian editorial says. According to the state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Balmer, the courts need $410 million from 2013-2015 in order to run efficiently everyday at full capacity.

While the state courts deserve to be funded equally as a third branch of government, the editorial argues, legislators have yet to find an adequate source of money. The courts are having to spend increasingly more on its pension system, making it difficult to find a long term solution to the system’s search for funds, it says. Read more

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Editorials Mull How to Get Rid of ‘Incompetent Judges’ in Illinois

Reflecting on the recent case of an oft-elected county judge who was found not guilty on battery charges by reason of insanity (see Gavel Grab), a Chicago Sun-Times editorial urged new ways “to dump incompetent county judges”:

“Two constitutional amendments are in the works in Springfield to fix that. Neither is perfect, but legislators should fine-tune them until they have the best possible answer for our broken system.”

One would set up special commissions to decide whether a judge was doing his or her job properly and should be retained. According to a Gavel to Gavel article, if seven members of the 11-member panel approved, the judge would return to the bench. If seven did not approve, the judge could run in a retention (up-or-down) election for a new term. The proposal is similar to a system in Hawaii.

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