Kilbride retention battle actually thwarts GOP plan to take over state Supreme Court

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Republican gubernatorial nominee Darren Bailey (left); Former state Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride (right).

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times; Provided/AP-file

Illinois Republicans were exultant two years ago over their successful effort to bounce Democrat Thomas Kilbride from the state Supreme Court, imagining it would allow them to reverse the Democrats’ 4-3 majority control. 

On Election Night, it became clear they hadn’t quite thought matters all the way through. 

Instead of looking forward to their own majority, Republicans are now facing a 5-2 deficit on the court after Democrats Elizabeth Rochford and Mary K. O’Brien pulled out hard fought victories for two open suburban seats indirectly created by Kilbride’s ouster. 

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The wins for Rochford and O’Brien make it likely Illinois Democrats will continue to control the state high court for at least the next quarter century.  

State Supreme Court justices are essentially elected for life except for the requirement they face retention votes every 10 years. Kilbride is the only justice ever removed in a retention vote. 

What Republican strategists failed to anticipate when they orchestrated Kilbride’s removal, or were mistaken that they could overcome, was that Democrats would counter by remapping the state’s Supreme Court districts.

They also probably didn’t expect to have someone like Darren Bailey at the top of the GOP ticket in 2022, dragging down all the party’s other candidates, or that that Republicans would nominate a poorly qualified candidate in former Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran to run against Rochford. But maybe they should have worked harder to avoid those complications. 

Former Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran and Lake County Judge Elizabeth Rochford.

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Although the new map was drawn with the blatant intention of making it easier for Democratic candidates to win election to the court, it was legally justifiable — and arguably long overdue — because of major population changes that had taken place since the last time the boundaries were set more than a half century ago. 

Democrats couldn’t as a practical matter draw the map in a way to ensure themselves victory, as much as they might have preferred to do so. 

But the revised suburban districts they created gave them a shot at strengthening their hold on the court if they won both suburban seats.  

The new Second District, centered on Lake and Kane counties, leans slightly Democratic. The Third District, based in DuPage and Will counties, gave Republicans a slight edge. 

Academics can argue partisanship isn’t really a factor at the state Supreme Court, and I actually had that argument recently with a college professor who knows a lot more about the law than me. Most of the time, party affiliation is probably not a factor. But I see those political types pouring their time, money and effort into the court election and conclude otherwise. 

I can tell you Democrats were very worried in recent weeks about losing their majority on the state court, especially in light of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning its Roe v. Wade abortion decision.  

Early on, Democrats discovered the demographics of the new districts gave them an edge when the issue of abortion was raised, with voters in both districts favoring candidates who support abortion rights. Rochford and O’Brien were heavily backed by abortion rights groups. Republicans Burke and Curran had the backing of anti-abortion groups. 

Appellate Court Justice Mary Kay O’Brien (left); Illinois Supreme Court Justice Michael J. Burke (right).

Democratic angst was heightened when Republicans started pouring money into the same tactic that brought down Kilbride — portraying the Democratic candidates as patsies of indicted former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. 

It didn’t matter that the linkage was weak, especially in the case of Rochford who said she’d never even met Madigan. 

O’Brien was a former state representative under Madigan. 

The Madigan attacks worked to a point, but guilt by association has its limits with voters. 

In the end, the abortion argument seems to have been more potent. 

Rochford won handily by about eight percentage points. O’Brien’s race against Republican Justice Michael Burke was closer, with a two percentage point margin. 

At this point, Republicans will have to hope the college professor is right and that it doesn’t matter all that much which party controls the court.

Ino Saves New

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November 9, 2022 at 10:19PM

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