Wednesday, October 27, 2010

‘Dump Kilbride’ is pure partisan politics

Justice Thomas Kilbride
I have my memories of being a reporter-type person at the Statehouse in Springfield during the spring of 1995, watching as a newly-elected Republican majority rammed through so many new laws meant to impose a conservative ideological agenda on the state.

What kept that agenda from having a lasting effect on the state was the Illinois Supreme Court. I lost count of the number of times I wrote stories during 1997 and 1998 – the gist of which was that yet another of those “Laws of ’95” was struck down as unconstitutional.

WHICH IS WHY when I hear the business-oriented associations and legal groups complain about Justice Thomas Kilbride and talk about the millions of dollars they are spending on a campaign to urge people to vote against his retention to the state’s highest court, I can’t help but think that their real intent is to try to mess with the court in such a way that it won’t be able to knock down the agenda they’d like to peddle in Springfield in coming months.

That presumes the GOP in Illinois will experience such significant gains on Election Day that they will be in a position to ram through bills on so many social and economic issues. Nothing is certain.

But I’m sure those political people who are old enough to remember that period in the mid-1990s when Illinois Republicans were not only significant, but also powerful, feel that one of the lessons they learned was that they can’t focus purely on the Executive and Legislative branches of Illinois government.

They also have to think about the Judicial branch, where members of the Supreme Court of Illinois are elected to 10-year terms. Justices wishing to get re-elected run for retention, which means there is no opponent. But they must get at least 60 percent support, or else a replacement is picked by political appointment.

WHICH MEANS THAT people who want to play conservative partisan politics are including the high court in their electoral strategy.

As it turns out, three of the seven justices on the court are up for retention this year. Charles Freeman, who is a Democrat, is running from the court’s first district, which is Cook County. Another is Robert Thomas of the second district. He is a Republican, but his home DuPage County accounts for more than half of the people of that district, so he’s probably safe.

That is why the attention is focused on McBride. He’s a Democrat from Rock Island from the third district – which includes portions of Will County and his home area along the Mississippi River that have significant Democratic voters, sandwiching a stretch of central Illinois that is solidly Republican.

In short, McBride is getting the focus of this attempt to potentially add a Republican justice to the high court because the GOP political operatives think they can get that middle portion of the district to turn out in what has potential to be a significant year for Republicans so as to “win” come Tuesday.

FOR THEM, A “win” means dumping Kilbride from the high court, even though it probably makes him the one person to have conservative opposition even though he has the support of the National Rifle Association, among other groups.

That is why we have been getting campaign ads on television in recent weeks focusing on the Illinois Supreme Court, claiming that Kilbride is some sort of criminal-loving justice who doesn’t rule in favor of real people.

It is the reason this election has been called the most expensive one-candidate retention election held during the past decade, according to a study by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

Among the effort’s leaders is the Illinois Civil Justice League (an outspoken proponent of tort reform), which according to a study compiled by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform has a political action committee that has raised $667,000 from various business-oriented groups.

THAT HAS CAUSED the Illinois Democratic Party to give Kilbride significant assistance ($1.4 million), with other money and in-kind assistance coming from groups such as the Illinois Federation of Teachers political fund ($454,000). In all, Kilbride has had $2.48 million in his campaign fund to enable him to fight back.

The Illinois Civil Justice League has said the reason it wants Kilbride off the high court is because in 21 cases they have an interest in, Kilbride voted to rule against business interests all 21 times.

There is a difference of opinion about what is “good”. One of the cases was a ruling to strike down a new state law that would have limited the size of non-economic “pain and suffering” damages against hospitals and doctors – a ruling seen as beneficial to those who suffer severe long-term injuries.

But groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Tort Reform Association, and a political committee of the National Association of Manufacturers (all of which gave money to the civil justice league’s JUSTPAC political fund) view the issue differently. They want someone sympathetic to business interests involved in creating the high court’s rulings.

AFTER ALL, THE high court now has a 4-3 margin leaning Democrat. Kilbride of Rock Island and the three Cook County justices (Freeman, Anne Burke and Mary Jane Theis) comprise that majority against the Republican faction of Thomas, Rita Garman of Danville and Lloyd Karmeier of Nashville in Southern Illinois.

I do realize that the justices try to follow the law and downplay partisan politics when possible. But there are those issues that do become purely ideological for both sides and where the “letter of the law” can be interpreted to support either side. Which is why the conservative interests are eager to ensure that any future acts their elected officials pass into law get a final hearing by a high court inclined to be sympathetic.


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