New Open Seat in Illinois Supreme Court will be Expensive and Hotly Contested

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Newly redrawn Illinois Supreme Court districts mean there’s an open seat in the northern and far western suburbs that’s expected to be fought over next year in a high-dollar battle key to determining which party controls the judicial branch.

Four county judges and a North Shore mayor already say they’re in or considering a run for the new 2nd District job, and more candidates could emerge in the coming months.

The would-be justices will have to win support from voters in Lake, Kane, McHenry, Kendall and DeKalb counties. First up is the primary election in late June 2022, with the Democrat and Republican victors then squaring off in the November general election.

The seat is one of two spots up for grabs on a court where Democrats hold a 4-3 edge, and the campaigns will unfold after both sides shattered Illinois spending records on a judicial contest in fall 2020. Illinois Republicans and their business allies scored a big win when voters rejected retention for then-Justice Tom Kilbride of Rock Island in the 3rd District, who was backed by trial lawyers and labor unions. The district has been tweaked to make it more Democrat-friendly, but for Republicans, the 2022 contests may represent the party’s best shot at regaining a toehold in state government.

“This could end up being one of the most interesting and consequential races on the ballot,” said Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “If you’ve got an interest in maintaining some relevance politically, the court might be the way to go.”

While the justices don’t carry anywhere near a high profile as that of the governor, U.S. senators, Chicago mayor, or legislative leaders, the high court’s decisions have far-reaching impacts on the state’s residents. During the last decade or so, the state Supreme Court has tossed from the ballot a question on whether politics should be taken out of redistricting, ruled unconstitutional a law cutting government worker pensions and threw out limits on medical malpractice damages in civil lawsuits.

“It’s had a Democratic tilt. Elect a Republican and we’ve got a court that might be more friendly to business,” Redfield said. “You could lock up the Supreme Court until the next remap in 2031.”

How we got here

The state Supreme Court boundaries hadn’t been redrawn since 1964. After weeks of behind-the-scenes chatter, Democrats unveiled a new judicial map on May 25, six days before the scheduled adjournment. The court redistricting plan then quickly passed the House and Senate on the strength of Democratic votes.

Republicans decried the move as a sham designed to allow Democrats to maintain and perhaps expand their political advantage on the court. Democrats said the new boundaries reflect that Illinois is a more diverse state than it was 60 years ago. They also pointed to shifts in where people live and the need for districts to have equal population numbers.

The sudden judicial redistricting was done about six months after voters in the far southern suburbs and parts of central Illinois dealt Democrats a stinging defeat by voting not to retain Kilbride. He lost after millions of dollars were spent by Republican groups linking him to then-Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, who was embroiled in a Commonwealth Edison federal corruption probe that played a big role in ending his reign. Madigan has denied wrongdoing and not been charged, though his former top confidants have been.

The retention result meant the 3rd District seat would be up for election in 2022, and if Republicans won, they would capture the court and overturn the Democrats’ 4-3 advantage.

But the recently approved map creates a new playing field. Democrats start out with a near guarantee of three seats on the court because the Illinois Constitution requires that three justices be elected in Cook County, which is heavily Democratic. Republicans can reasonably lay claim to two downstate seats in Districts 4 and 5.

That leaves the 2nd and 3rd Districts as the swing territory. Justice Michael J. Burke, a DuPage County resident who was appointed last year to succeed the retiring Justice Robert Thomas, had been expected to run for the 2nd District seat. But the new map moved DuPage to the 3rd District, and now that’s the seat Burke is expected to pursue, leaving the 2nd District spot wide open.

What the political terrain looks like

Until Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the new judicial boundaries into law last month, the 2nd District was made up of 13 counties — all but one of the collar counties, the counties that bordered Wisconsin and a few other northern Illinois counties, totaling 3.2 million people, according to a legislative analysis. The new 2nd District is made up of just five counties: Lake, Kane, McHenry, Kendall and DeKalb, totaling 1.77 million people.

Just how Democratic the new 2nd District is depends on the election used to measure it. Democrat Joe Biden scored 55.9% to 42.1% for then-President Donald Trump in those five counties last year. In 2018, Democrat Pritzker bested then-Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner by just 2 percentage points. Both Pritzker and Biden took all but McHenry County. In 2014, Rauner bested then-Gov. Pat Quinn by 23 percentage points in those five counties.

The Pritzker-Rauner contest is probably the most apt comparison, given that 2022 is not a presidential year, and the governor’s race is once again on the ballot. Republicans are unlikely to have a self-funding billionaire candidate opposing Pritzker. But the GOP also won’t have to deal with Rauner’s unpopularity, and now Pritzker has to run on his record. Democratic turnout could be helped by a pro-union statewide referendum asking voters to ban laws that interfere with collective bargaining rights.

"It’s a leaning Democratic district, with Kane and Lake, judging by the two largest counties," said Mark Guethle, Kane County Democratic chairman. Lake made up 40.6% of voters in the November 2018 election, with Kane in second at 27.5%.

Mark Shaw, the Lake County Republican chairman, said if the GOP can pick up both the 2nd and 3rd District seats, some issues thought to be decided, such as pension reform and legislative redistricting, potentially could be open to review.

“The fact that we could see a shift in control of the court is kind of amazing,” said Shaw, who’s also the state party co-chairman.

Meet the candidates (so far)

On the Republican side, one candidate has emerged publicly. He’s Lake County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Shanes, a former county prosecutor. He was appointed in 2007, won a close 2012 election and then was retained in 2018 with 80.5% of the vote. He’s the presiding judge of the felony division and is the board chairman of the Illinois Judicial College, which provides legal education and training for judges, probation officers, court clerks and other staff.

Shanes, who is planning a formal campaign announcement, has a late July fundraiser in Vernon Hills chaired by Stephen Simonian, a criminal defense attorney, and Larry Falbe, the president of the Lake County Republican Federation.

In Kane County, no Republican has announced. Party insiders say two experienced judges would make good candidates: Susan Clancy Boles, the presiding judge in the civil division, and Elizabeth Flood, presiding judge in the family division.

On the Democratic side, two Lake candidates and two Kane candidates have surfaced.

Lake County Associate Judge Elizabeth Rochford announced her candidacy on July 15. She’s a probate judge who was appointed in 2012 and reappointed in 2015 and 2019. Before that, she was an Illinois Court of Claims commissioner. On the bench, she’s focused on improving the public’s access to justice and set up a family law courtroom geared toward making it easier for people representing themselves to navigate the legal process.

“If families are in crisis, it affects not only that family, but the community as a whole,” she said.

Campaign finance records show Rochford contributed $1,500 to Chicago Ald. Edward Burke a couple weeks after federal investigators raided his City Hall offices in late 2018 ahead of filing corruption charges. “He’s a longtime friend of our family,” Rochford said. “It was consistent with my previous campaign donations. It wasn’t part of anything that was going on at that time.”

Burke was a Chicago police officer during the late 1960s and an outspoken police ally as alderman. Rochford’s father, James Rochford, was the city’s police superintendent for three years during the 1970s.

Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering said she’s "exploring a run" for the seat. She’s won three terms as mayor and one for City Council, but lost Democratic primary bids for Illinois attorney general in 2018 and the 10th Congressional District in 2016. Rotering has not been shy about putting her own money into her runs for office.

She has campaigned on Highland Park’s ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, which survived a nationally watched court challenge. The village passed the ban in the wake of mass shootings like the 2012 tragedy in Newtown, Conn. where a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

In Kane County, Judge John Noverini has announced a bid. Noverini, who presides over branch court in Elgin, loaned his campaign fund $95,000 in May. He served on the County Board as a Republican before switching to the Democrats. Noverini has since won retention bids. He already has a website up bearing the slogan: "Experience. Integrity. Independence."

Circuit Court Judge Rene Cruz, who presides over Kane’s traffic and misdemeanor division after eight years in family court, is also running in the Democratic primary. He’s the county’s first Latino associate judge and went on to be elected as a circuit judge in 2018.

“My sales pitch is that I’ve lived a life of service, and this gives me the highest platform from which to serve,” said Cruz, who won the county bar association’s community service award this year.

What to expect

Voters should brace for potentially contentious primaries and almost surely a bruising fall campaign.

"I think it’s healthy. Primaries are always good. It’s part of our democracy," said Guethle, the Kane Democratic leader.

Judges are supposed to stay above the fray. Judicial candidates often are hesitant to talk about their personal views on legal and political issues, and they’re barred from making "statements that commit or appear to commit the candidate with respect to cases, controversies or issues within cases that are likely to come before the court," according to the Illinois Judicial Ethics Committee. Candidates for the state’s high court also aren’t supposed to "knowingly or with reckless disregard for the truth, make, or permit or encourage others, including, his or her campaign committee, to make any false or misleading statement."

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be waves of political attacks, especially ahead of the November 2022 general election, as outside groups could pour in millions of dollars with control of the state Supreme Court at stake.

That’s what happened in the Kilbride retention campaign last year, when both sides put in a combined $11.7 million. Opposing Kilbride were billionaires Ken Griffin, a hedge fund magnate, and Richard Uihlein, a packing materials mogul. The two also helped defeat Pritzker’s graduated income-tax rate constitutional amendment that would have applied to wealthy people. The then-Madigan controlled Democratic Party, organized labor and trial lawyers backed Kilbride.

The campaign spending outpaced the previous record, the nearly $9.4 million poured into the 2004 election of Republican Lloyd Karmeier to the state Supreme Court. Pro-business groups backed Karmeier, while trial lawyers backed the Democratic opponent in what turned into a nasty campaign.

There’s plenty of time for the field of candidates to grow in the 2nd District. Candidates can start gathering voter signatures in January, and the deadline to file paperwork to try to secure a spot on the primary ballot is March 14. Two other factors could factor in to who ends up making the race: there’s an appellate court vacancy that could attract some candidates, and in Lake County, the judicial subcircuits will be redrawn this fall, potentially shuffling the deck.

Beyond that, the new judicial map is being challenged in court by Republicans, who argue the Democratic decision to base the maps on American Community Survey information instead of waiting for census data was "arbitrary and discriminatory" and against the law. If the GOP prevails, that could send mapmakers back to work.

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July 19, 2021 at 07:53AM

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