Expert: Abolish partisan elections for Illinois judges

By Phil Ciciora 
U of I News Bureau

CHAMPAIGN – The state of Illinois may be synonymous in popular culture with political corruption, but a new paper from a University of Illinois legal expert adds another layer: With popularly elected judges, Illinois courts are similarly mired in legalized influence peddling and partisanship.

Political influence pervades and taints Illinois courts, mirroring the state’s corruption-prone legislative and executive branches, said Michael LeRoy, a professor of labor and employment relations at Illinois.

“Since Illinois doesn’t use merit selection for judges, structural influences taint the independence of Illinois courts,” said LeRoy, who also holds a courtesy appointment with the College of Law. “Illinois simply labels judges by their political party. So the courts are then shaped by the Democratic and Republican parties as well as the General Assembly, which sets judicial salaries at near-record levels.”

According to the paper, only eight states have partisan elections for their state supreme courts. In addition, Illinois is among only 13 states with no merit commission for judges, and among only 11 states with partisan elections of general jurisdiction judges.

“The nation’s constitutional founders envisioned independence for our court system, framed in a theory of separation of powers,” LeRoy said. “While they saw the judiciary as the weakest branch, they conferred special legitimacy to courts by conceiving them as an intermediate body to protect citizens from the stronger legislative and executive branches. The state of Illinois’ partisan election system works against this core principle by encouraging judges to campaign like everyday politicians. As a result, judicial independence is compromised.”

LeRoy cautions that Illinois judges are not corrupt “so far as the evidence shows,” he said, but by aligning themselves with political parties and other powerful interests, it certainly gives off “the whiff of corruption, even if there is none.”

“It’s just unbecoming,” LeRoy said. “If nothing else, it strategically labels judges for wealthy donors who like to influence public policies. And that, without question, ought to raise some eyebrows.”

Related: New website offers more transparency for Illinois’ judiciary

When donors and voters see a political label next to a judge’s name, “this signals that the candidate shares the party’s values,” LeRoy said. “Thus, a judge is forever identified as Republican or Democrat, even when those labels are not used in a retention election. Campaign donors – especially business groups, labor unions, trial lawyers and political parties – are able to make calculated decisions about investing in certain judicial candidates.”

That wealthy donors give millions of dollars to high-level candidates signifies their confidence that party affiliation reliably predicts a judge’s key votes in future cases, LeRoy said.

“The end result is that this highly partisan process hinders the judiciary’s fulfillment of its role as an independent, apolitical arbiter of justice,” he said.

The paper identifies several problems with Illinois’ flawed method for selecting judges and offers remedies, including the abolishment of partisan elections for judges.

“The state should select and retain judges with a commission of citizens, lawyers and judges who use merit as their criteria,” LeRoy said.

The paper also recommends updating the state’s judicial code to include the current provisions of the American Bar Association’s model code of judicial conduct.

“Illinois judges are currently bound to an ethics code that is a relic from the 1970s through the early 1990s – a period when little money was spent on judicial elections,” LeRoy said. “Political influence in the Illinois judicial system will not subside as long as the state’s judicial code aids and abets record levels of campaign spending on judicial elections. Illinois judges should be held to the stringent campaign standards that are common in other states.”

LeRoy also argues for a board to enforce judicial ethics, with judges disciplined for transgressions such as donating to candidates who run for prosecutor, engaging in “retire-to-run” shams, and double-dipping at the expense of taxpayers.

“Illinois should be more like states that discipline judges who degrade the impartiality of the judiciary,” he said. “But these reforms cannot be accomplished until the state endows its judicial ethics board with more teeth through enhanced powers, more funding for a proactive enforcement staff, and more transparency to audit and disclose the financial interests of judges to the taxpaying public.”

For now, Illinois courts remain open for business – “open for labor unions, trial lawyers and other special interest groups that dole out money from deep campaign war chests like candy corn on Halloween,” LeRoy said.

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