Personal political action committees (PACs) should not become involved in judicial elections, said The Chicago Bar Association President Robert A. Clifford.
Clifford's comments come after Personal PAC, a Chicago group dedicated to putting abortion-rights supporters into political office, entered the four-way Democratic race for a Cook County vacancy on the Illinois Supreme Court.
The involvement of a personal PAC in the Supreme Court race further erodes public confidence in the judiciary's independence, Clifford said.
Personal PAC recently sent mailers to voters criticizing 1st District Appellate Justice Aurelia Pucinski and saying she opposes abortion rights, while also highlighting its endorsement of Justice Mary Jane Theis, who sits by temporary appointment on the Supreme Court.
The other Democratic candidates for the Thomas R. Fitzgerald vacancy on Tuesday's ballot are 1st District Justice Joy V. Cunningham and lawyer Thomas W. Flannigan.
"These PACs just don't belong in these (judicial) races," Clifford said. Judges "should not be a personal PAC's punching bag."
Illinois Supreme Court Rule 67(A)(3)(d)(i) states that judicial candidates shall not "make 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."
As a result, Personal PAC's involvement in the Supreme Court race "is unfair to all of the judicial candidates because they can't fight back," Clifford said.
"Today, it's Pucinski on abortion," Clifford said. "Tomorrow it could be Theis on gun control and the day after it could be Cunningham on legislative redistricting," Clifford said after issuing a statement Thursday denouncing the involvement of personal PACs in judicial races.
Pucinski said she agreed with Clifford's statement.
"This is a very slippery slope and will quickly turn into an avalanche for every judge," Pucinski said. "It will significantly impact on the appearance of impartiality of judges."
Theis' campaign did not coordinate with Personal PAC on the mailings, said Brendan O'Sullivan, her campaign manager.
Personal PAC made "an independent expenditure," he said.
Theis filled out questionnaires for Personal PAC, labor unions and newspapers as part of the campaign, he said.
Theis "sought (Personal PAC's) endorsement because she sought the endorsements of a lot of organizations," O'Sullivan said. But in response to questions about specific issues from Personal PAC and other groups, Theis declined to answer and referred to Supreme Court Rule 67, he said.
Personal PAC spent about $105,000 this month for the mailers in the Supreme Court race, independent expenditure reports it filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections show.
Terry Cosgrove, Personal PAC's president and CEO, could not be reached for comment.
Kathy Posner, a spokeswoman for Cunningham, a former nurse for Planned Parenthood, said the issue relating to Personal PAC involves the other candidates.
"She has no desire to insert herself in an issue that is not hers," Posner said.
Flannigan declined comment about Personal PAC's involvement in the race.
Steven M. Puiszis, chairman of the Judicial Task Force of DRI — The Voice of the Defense Bar, said he views Personal PAC's involvement in the Supreme Court race as a threat to judicial independence
"This is an issue that all Illinois judges should be concerned about because any single special interest group could target anyone of them," said Puiszis, a Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP partner who served as editor of DRI's report on judicial independence, "Without Fear or Favor in 2011."
Puiszis said that in 2010, three Iowa Supreme Court justices got voted off the bench after they were targeted over that court's unanimous vote on same-sex marriage.
"When deciding on a judicial candidate, voters should be looking at … a judge's entire record, not simply his or her vote on a single case or a single issue," Puiszis said.