Gavel Grab

Panel May Propose New Recusal Standards in Illinois

A special panel of the Illinois State Bar Association is working to draft recommendations for new guidelines about disqualification of judges in an era of increased judicial election spending.

John Thies, the state Bar president, said he established the committee in part because of the Supreme Court’s landmark 2009 ruling in a judicial recusal case, Caperton v. Massey, and in part out of concern over public perceptions when judges hear cases involving parties who contributed to their campaigns. He was interviewed by the Madison County (Illinois) Record.

Caperton highlighted conflict of interest concerns raised by spending to influence court elections in West Virginia. The Supreme Court found that there was a risk of bias when a West Virginia  justice voted on a case involving a coal company whose chief executive had spent millions to help the justice win election. Caperton moved the issue of judicial recusal to the national stage.

Regarding public perception, Thies said greater public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary would be inspired by having disqualification standards that clarify when a judge should recuse.

The article recaps episodes in Illinois that have spotlighted a need for new recusal rules. They include a judge’s acceptance of $30,000 in campaign contributions from law firms representing plaintiffs in asbestos-exposure litigation. The judge was reassigned from hearing all asbestos cases after her campaign had received the law firms’ donations (see Gavel Grab).

Whitney Woodward of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a JAS partner group, said creating recusal standards would offer the best route “to improve the public’s confidence in our courts.”

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