A day after Gov. Bruce Rauner said the Illinois Supreme Court is part of a “corrupt system,” a judges’ association fired back, calling his comments “disturbing” and saying it “endangers the rule of law.”
The group’s response follows the Republican governor telling a suburban newspaper: “I don’t trust the Supreme Court to be rational in their decisions.”
Rauner said they’re “activist judges who want to be legislators” and part of a “corrupt system” because they accept donations from trial lawyers.
“You tell me if you look at who gives them the money, and you decide whether there’s a conflict of interest going on in the courts,” Rauner told the Daily Herald editorial board on Tuesday. “You tell me. Do you think there’s not?”
The governor’s office declined the Daily Law Bulletin’s request to talk about his comments. His office issued a statement Wednesday that the “current system creates potential conflicts of interest by allowing trial lawyers to fund the election campaigns of judges who they appear in front of. The governor wants to change that.”
Joseph R. Tybor, a Supreme Court spokesman, also declined to comment.
But the Illinois Judges Association and the Illinois State Bar Association blasted the governor’s words.
First District Appellate Justice Michael B. Hyman, who also serves as president of the Illinois Judges Association, said Wednesday in a statement that Rauner’s comments were “disparaging” and undermined people’s faith in all three branches of government.
“His statements are disappointing, of course, but also disturbing because they diminish the authority of the courts, and that endangers the rule of law,” Hyman said.
“The governor has shown contempt for every judge of this state by his attack on the Supreme Court and shows he misunderstands the role of the entire court system.”
He said the judges’ association would welcome a dialogue with the governor.
“By getting together, I do believe we can talk about the judicial system without the hyper-rhetoric of the past and give the governor a better appreciation and understanding of the courts of Illinois.”
This is not Rauner’s first spat with the legal community.
His comments come two months after he called for laws banning trial lawyer donations in judicial campaigns as well as eliminating judicial elections in favor of a merit selection system. The Illinois Trial Lawyers Association called Rauner’s positions a “declaration of war” after the State of the State address in February.
And Rauner’s comments this week come after he attended oral arguments March 17 at the high court in Springfield — along with a number of legislators — at the invitation of the court and Chief Justice Rita B. Garman.
Robert A. Clifford, a past president of ITLA and a partner at Clifford Law Offices, said he’s not shy about making donations in judicial elections. And, he said, there’s nothing inherently wrong with making contributions to judges.
“It’s our right as Americans to do so. The question becomes whether the donations create appearances of impropriety and conflicts of interest,” Clifford said. “But what the governor ignores is that at least in Illinois, particularly at the Supreme Court level, it’s his big-business allies that have been funding those elections.”
He referenced a decadelong controversy over whether Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier took donations from business groups with high-stakes cases before the Supreme Court and then ruled in their favor.
Karmeier has vigorously denied the claim and in November was almost unseated in his retention campaign, arguably in large part due to negative advertisements funded by a group of plaintiff lawyers — including Clifford’s firm; Power, Rogers & Smith P.C.; and Korein, Tillery.
The ISBA, the state’s largest bar group, also issued a statement on Rauner’s comment, saying it’s “most unfortunate” that Rauner “has chosen to impugn the integrity” of the high court and all trial and appellate judges.
“Americans of every possible political persuasion participate in judicial campaigns, and their ability to participate in those elections is cherished and protected by the courts and Constitution,” the ISBA statement says.
Since the 1980s, the ISBA statment says, the group has worked with former Gov. James R. Thompson and the late former state Sen. Dawn Clark Netsch on proposals regarding merit selection and retention in addition to public financing of judicial campaigns.
The statement ends by saying that the ISBA “would hope” that Rauner “might show the same kind of leadership and respect for our system” as Thompson did “by proposing constructive legislation as opposed to issuing gratuitous, personal attacks that undermine the rule of law.”
At least a couple of constitutional changes pending in the legislature would alter the election process for judges, as Rauner has indicated he would like to do.
One bill in the House would maintain elections for candidates for judicial vacancies but would call for retention elections only if a sitting judge whose term is ending was found unqualified by a commission. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat.
Another bill hews closer to the idea Rauner outlined.
Sponsored by Rep. Dwight Kay, a Glen Carbon Republican, it would alter the constitution so that any judicial vacancy would be filled by one of three candidates selected by nonpartisan commissions. Some members of the commission would be chosen by the governor, and the governor would choose the new judge.
The proposals would have to clear high hurdles.
They each need three-fifths majority votes in the House and Senate, plus approval by either a majority of all voters who cast ballots in a statewide election or 60 percent of voters who weigh in specifically on the proposals.
“He’s got his right to speak his mind, and if he’s got a creative idea to solve the state’s financial problems then, you know, we as a community ought to want to hear them,” Clifford said.
“But every time I read an article about him, he uses a very broad brush, and he’s short on specifics. He did the same thing in the election, and now here we are six months later. … Where’s the meat on the bone?”