Sometimes the calls by "reformers" for "reform" deserve a close inspection.
Why are these particular people or institutions calling for these particular "reforms?"On their surface, some "reforms" seem to make a lot of sense but a deeper look can reveal some suspicious -- if not selfish -- motivation.
Such is the case with the report circulated last week and reported locally by Kevin McDermott in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (link below).
The report points out that Illinois holds the "record" for the most expensive judicial election campaign in U.S. history (2004 Supreme Court race) and blah blah blah.
We've heard the stories before ( ...we were, in fact, in the middle of some of them ...) and there is no denying on anyone's part that the Illinois Supreme Court race in 2004 was costly. And yes, the $9.3 million raised and spent by the two campaigns (or on behalf of the two candidates) raised some eyebrows.
But there are a few points that need to be made -- or repeated since they've been made time and time again -- to put it in perspective.
First, money was not the deciding factor in the 2004 race in the Fifth Judicial District of Illinois. About $4.7 million was spent on behalf of Republican candidate Lloyd Karmeier and about $4.6 million was spent on behalf of Democrat Gordon Maag. The difference was about $100,000 -- or about 1% of the total dollars.
Second, while the Maag money was clearly and indisputably from trial lawyers and organized labor, the Karmeier support came from Fifth District voters and residents, in addition to business and medical supporters.
Check it for yourself: the final campaign spending reports of both campaigns are available at the Illinois State Board of Elections and they show what was received in final six months of 2004.
The Karmeier report is 156 pages and shows more than $500,000 in individual contributions. For the most part, these contributions are from people -- voters in the Fifth District.
The Maag report is less than half the size -- 66 pages -- and shows about $172,000 in individual contributions, about one-third of what Karmeier received from actual voters in the district. The balance of his money came from trial lawyers, funneled through the state Democratic Party.
Maag clearly was the recipient of more "special interest" money. The dollars show it. Karmeier clearly was the recipient of more Fifth district voter money.Here's a quick refresher course on the 2004 Supreme Court election:
The race in Illinois in 2004 was driven by several factors:
1. There had been patterns of abuse in the judicial system in Southern Illinois, particularly in Madison and St. Clair Counties, for years. Voters wanted a change.
2. Voters were paying much more attention to Supreme and Appellate Court races in Illinois, particularly after the Supreme Court overturned a major civil justice reform law in 1997. It was a Madison County case and the 2004 Supreme Court election was the first since that decision
3. There was a growing shortage of doctors and access to health care in Southern Illinois and many blamed the shortage on the high cost of medical malpractice insurance and the high number of malpractice lawsuits against good doctors and hospitals in Southern Illinois.
4. The candidates were starkly different. The Democrat (Gordon Maag) was a former personal injury trial lawyer from Madison County -- exactly the kind of judge voters wanted to be rid of (and they not only defeated him in the Supreme Court race, they removed him from the Appellate Court). The Republican was a moderate-to-conservative judge from Washington County with an impeccable record and a down-to-earth demeanor.
5. It was a no-brainer for most voters and the money in the race came from voters as well as businesses, doctors and others who wanted change, who wanted to start correcting the system.
How this all relates to the latest published report is this:
The report referred to above is from Justice at Stake -- an organization heavily funded by trial lawyers and trial lawyer interests.
About two years ago, the ICJL conducted a thorough and comprehensive study -- and produced several reports -- on the various influences in the discussion of campaign spending and judicial election reform.
Our reports: Watching the Watchdogs and Justice at Stake can be found here. These reports -- follow the links for detail and verification -- make it pretty clear who wants to control the reform of the judicial system in the U.S.
The trial lawyers and their allies, in Illinois and elsewhere, are disturbed that other interests, including business and medical and citizens, are getting involved in judicial election campaigns, and they don't want to lose their control.
And they won't hesitate to distort the facts -- to lie -- about what really happened.
Here's a quote from Kevin McDermott's story in the Post-Dispatch referring to the 2004 Supreme Court race:
"A footnote points out that the race ranks as the second most expensive court campaign in American history, outpaced only by the $9.3 million raised in a 2004 Illinois Supreme Court campaign.The truth is that Karmeier did not get $350,000 from State Farm. In fact, State Farm does not contribute to campaigns, nor to political action committees. We're not authorized to speak for State Farm but they are a member of the Illinois Civil Justice League.
"In that Southern Illinois race, spending by Democrat Gordon Maag and Republican Lloyd Karmeier together topped $9 million for the first (and still only) time in any judicial race in U.S. history. Both candidates got millions from opposing business and legal interests with issues before the court. Karmeier won, and he remains on the bench today.
"As an example of how that kind of money can diminish the stature of a court, the report cites Karmeier's subsequent decision not to recuse himself from a case involving State Farm insurance, even though the company, its lawyers and its supporters donated more than $350,000 to his campaign.
"After rejecting calls for his recusal, Karmeier cast the deciding vote in favor of State Farm, with the divided court throwing out an earlier judgment against the company.
The report holds up the controversy as an example of why courts should institute new rules, including automatic disqualification of judges from cases in which they have received donations above a certain threshold, and better educate judges on the need to avoid even the appearance of partiality.
State Farm employees contributed modest amounts to the Karmeier campaign and to other campaigns, as they have in previous elections. (I suspect that many of the Karmeier contributors were State Farm policy-holders.)
But because State Farm is a supporter of the Illinois Civil Justice League, and a member of the Illinois State Chamber of Commerce and probably many other organizations that did support the Karmeier campaign, the trial lawyer-backed opposition stretched the truth in their effort to discredit Justice Karmeier.
There was a very clear motive behind their attack and it is a motive that extends to all of the Justice at Stake reporting, including this most recent report.
The trial lawyers and the groups they support (and which support them) do not want to lose their control over the judicial systems in many states and they especially do not want to lose control over the selection of judges in states that currently elect them, such as Illinois.
So they will continue to do what they can to paint the current systems as flawed and in need of change, whether by establishing controls on campaign contributions or the actual selection process for judges.
It's unfortunate that their self-interest motivation gets in the way of doing what's right.
With a potential Illinois Constitutional Convention on the horizon, we think a change in the process of selecting judges in Illinois should be considered and we'd be likely to support a good merit selection process. But if the trial lawyers and Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center are on the same side, we'd have to take an ever closer look.
Frankly, we don't trust them.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch News Article: Campaign Reformers Target Illinois
Justice At Stake Report
ICJL's Reports On Brennan Center, Justice At Stake
Summary of ICJL Findings -- With Web Links
Cross-posted at Illinois Justice Blog.