Lloyd A. Karmeier
Lloyd A. Karmeier

SPRINGIELD — Last year, Lloyd A. Karmeier barely avoided becoming the first sitting Illinois Supreme Court justice to lose a retention election.

But his victory received another nationwide distinction among state supreme court races, according to a report this week — the largest share of spending by outside interest groups.

About 90 percent of the $3.35 million total spent surrounding Karmeier’s retention vote was either used for or spent against him by outside groups, the largest percentage in any state-level high court race in the country during the last election cycle, a study released today says.

And the report, “Bankrolling the Bench: The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2013-14,” claims the Karmeier race is emblematic of a national trend. While overall spending in supreme court races dipped during the last cycle, the percentage of races funded by interest groups went up from 27 percent to 29 percent.

In real money terms, that amounted to $10.1 million out of $34.5 million total spent in state supreme court elections nationwide over the last two years.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which struck down bans on corporate donations, is one reason for the increased outside spending, the study’s authors claim. Another is increased interest by national groups in local elections.

“They’re seeing opportunities to shift the legal landscape of the state not only through influencing governor’s races and legislative races, but judicial races as well,” said Alicia Bannon, senior counsel in the Democracy Program at the New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center, who co-authored the report.

One such group is the Republican State Leadership Committee, which in addition to contributing in races around the country, spent $731,000 on TV ads backing Karmeier in his race last year.

The group was reacting, though, to the millions spent by a cadre of plaintiffs’ attorneys who believe the southern Illinois justice kowtowed to corporate interests in a pair of billion-dollar cases more than a decade ago.

Lawyers at Korein, Tillery LLC, which represents the plaintiffs in a class-action suit against tobacco giant Philip Morris, as well as Clifford Law Offices P.C. and Power, Rogers & Smith P.C., all helped a political committee called Campaign for 2016 raise more than $2 million in a bid to unseat Karmeier.

The tobacco case is currently pending before the state’s highest court for a second time. Karmeier voted about a decade ago to toss the original $10.1 billion verdict on behalf of a class of millions of Illinois smokers. He voted against another billion-dollar verdict in a case involving State Farm Insurance Co.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys believe Karmeier knowingly took contributions from Philip Morris and State Farm and then voted in their favor. He has denied it vigorously, including in a 16-page filing last year on why he wouldn’t recuse himself in the current iteration of the tobacco case.

When polls closed last November, 60.8 percent voters voted yes on a yes-or-no ballot question to retain Karmeier. He needed at least 60 percent to keep his seat.

Scott Greytak, lead author of the report and senior policy counsel for Justice at Stake, a Washington, D.C.-based group that researches money and conflicts of interest in judicial elections, said it’s difficult to determine whether and how campaign money actually affects behavior on the bench.

One study he cited, for instance, showed a positive relationship between business donations and business-friendly outcomes in legal cases. Another showed that during highly politicized races, judges may make more decisions against criminal defendants.

“I think there’s a growing body of research around the idea that this money is having an impact,” Greytak said. “The more immediate impact though is how the public looks at this.”

One prominent perception of the court came from Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner earlier this year. The first-year governor made headlines when he followed up his call for a ban on trial lawyer donations in judicial elections by telling a suburban newspaper editorial board that the Illinois Supreme Court is part of a “corrupt system” and that he didn’t trust the justices to be rational.

He later backtracked on his statements, but they also shed light on one of his proposals that actually has broad support in the legal community — merit selection of judges.

“A lot of judges have spoken out about how uncomfortable they are (about elections),” the Brennan Center’s Bannon said. “They don’t want to be politicians in robes, but feel they have no other choice.”

At least one judge has spoken out about it. Current Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Rita B. Garman said the amount of cash in judicial campaigns was “reason to be concerned.”

“I think our system could be served by a truly meritorious selection process,” she said in 2013, before becoming chief justice. “And I would not discourage the legislature from considering different alternatives about judicial selection.”