Inside the $4.7 million race for the next Illinois Supreme Court justice

A single candidate has poured more than $1.9 million of his own money into the campaign, making this race more expensive than the last two Illinois Supreme Court races combined.

Candidates and their supporters have poured more than $4.7 million into the crowded Illinois Supreme Court race ahead of the March 17 Democratic primary election.

That’s more donations than in the last two Supreme Court elections combined. Unlike previous elections, this one has a kitchen-sink quality to it, with seven candidates touting a broad range of reasons – diversity, experience, reform – for why they stand out.

All three races have one thing in common: one candidate who flooded the race with money to take a commanding fundraising lead over their opponents. Both previous candidates won.

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This year, Appellate Judge Shelly Harris has accounted for more than 40 percent of the total money raised, by putting $1.95 million of his own fortune into his campaign. He has spent about $1.3 million to place more than 1,000 network television ads, according to contracts reviewed by Injustice Watch. Harris has not responded to multiple requests for comment and his economic disclosure forms do not reveal the value or source of his personal wealth.

A still image from a T.V. ad for Illinois Supreme Court candidate Shelly Harris, which appeared before the Democratic presidential primary debate last month. Harris, a current Appellate Court judge, has spent more than $1.3 million on campaign ads, far outpacing his rivals.

Harris’s $2.1 million campaign war chest as of March 11 gives him a $1.5 million fundraising advantage over the next closest candidate, Appellate Judge Margaret McBride. McBride, a former prosecutor with 30 years of judicial experience, has raised $566,000, mainly from the legal community.

Appointed Supreme Court Justice P. Scott Neville Jr., the second person of color on the state’s highest court, has raked in $551,000 in contributions. Neville, the Democratic Party-endorsed incumbent, has gotten support from five political action committees of labor and public employee unions, which together contributed $196,000 to his campaign.

Attorney Daniel Epstein, the only candidate in the race who is not a judge, has self-funded $300,000 while raising another $149,000 from donors. Epstein touts himself as the sole candidate with a platform to reform the judiciary.

The three candidates with the smallest campaign funds are all people of color, appellate judges Cynthia Cobbs, Jesse Reyes, and Nathaniel Howse.

Though the Illinois Supreme Court seat is just one of 37 judicial vacancies in Cook County this year, it accounts for 39 percent of all Cook County judicial election fundraising this election cycle. Most of the money raised so far has come from the candidates themselves and the local legal community.

In a crowded field, Harris and Epstein’s self-funding boost helps to give them a baked-in financial advantage. It also lifts the contribution limits that would otherwise have capped the amount candidates could race from a single person, business, or political action committee, something that Cobbs took issue with.

“I don’t believe the caps should be permitted to be blown,” she said, adding she was unlikely to make up the difference between her and Harris before the election.

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Much of the outside money in the race comes from plaintiffs’ attorneys, which experts said is typical.

“Trial lawyers are a hugely significant group in terms of funding Illinois politics in general,” said Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois, Springfield.

Many of the highest donors in the Supreme Court race are plaintiffs’ attorneys who have donated to all or nearly all of the candidates. Redfield characterized the approach as a way for attorneys to hedge their bets. One way to hurt your chances of winning a case is to be the only lawyer before a judge who hasn’t donated to their campaign, he said.

“There doesn’t seem to be any particular concern among trial lawyer money that one of the candidates is significantly better or worse from their perspective,” Redfield said.

However, while 20 plaintiffs’ law firms or their attorneys have given more than $2,500 to multiple candidates, nine of the donors contributed to every Supreme Court candidate except Epstein.

Five circuit judges and one appellate justice have given $1,000 or more to a Supreme Court candidate. Judge LeRoy K. Martin Jr., the presiding judge of the criminal division, donated $1,000 to Neville. Though these donations are on a far smaller scale than those of plaintiffs’ lawyers, they still raise questions as to how it affects Supreme Court decision-making.

High spenders have winning record

The last two Supreme Court races – both voted on in Cook County – were far less crowded. Cook County voters elect three of the seven Illinois justices, given the county’s large population, while voters in the other four appellate districts across the state each select one. Both contests saw a candidate flush with cash sail to victory.

In 2012, appointed Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis kept her seat in a race against three primary opponents and a Republican opponent in the fall. Theis, who was endorsed by the Democratic Party and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, raised $1.4 million, with all but $5,000 coming from outside donors, including unions, law firms, and attorneys. Her only real fundraising competition was Appellate Judge Joy Cunningham, who would have been the first woman of color on the court.

As a challenger to the established candidate, Cunningham amassed an impressive sum, but it wasn’t enough. She raised $702,000, including more than $55,000 of her own money. However, Theis won handily with more than 48 percent of the primary vote. Cunningham, who finished second, won 23 percent of the vote, just barely more than Appellate Judge Aurelia Pucinski, who raised less than $80,000.

In 2008, appointed Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke won unopposed. Burke, who is married to Alderman Edward Burke, raised virtually all of her $1.9 million before candidates even filed.

“It pretty much drove everybody out of the race,” Redfield said.

Candidates for the Illinois Supreme Court (L to R), Daniel Epstein, Appellate Judge Jesse Reyes, Appellate Judge Nathaniel Howse and Appellate Judge Margaret McBride, at a candidates forum on Monday, Feb. 10, 2020

The ‘tightrope’ of judicial elections

The power of deep-pocket individuals and groups to influence elections should concern voters who care about a fair judiciary, said Alisa Kaplan, policy director for Reform for Illinois.

“The higher the court, the bigger the concern, because there are fewer judges and each one has more influence,” said Kaplan, whose nonpartisan organization examines the role of money in politics. “That’s why the ability to influence those races by big donors is worrisome.”

The Brennan Center for Justice points out the “tightrope” that judges have to walk: raising enough money to win while maintaining impartiality in decisions.

The idea of attorneys and judges donating to judges who might preside over their cases raises questions of conflicts of interest. But it is legal.

Supreme Court rules prohibit judges from personally soliciting campaign contributions. Instead, judges rely on campaign committees to fundraise on their behalf. In theory, that insulates judges from conflicts of interest. However, in practice, judges are still well-aware of who contributes to their campaigns.

Judges have the discretion to decide whether to recuse themselves from presiding over a case that involves a campaign donor. Even when there’s an apparent conflict, a judge might still participate.

In one notable case, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier cast the deciding vote in reversing a $1.05 billion judgment against State Farm in 2005, after the insurance giant donated as much as $4 million to his 2004 campaign via proxies, a lawsuit alleged.

Karmeier’s decision not to recuse himself from the case led to a racketeering lawsuit. State Farm settled the lawsuit for $250 million just before Karmeier, who is retiring this year after 16 years on the bench, was scheduled to testify.

Attorney Robert Clifford represented the plaintiffs in the State Farm racketeering case. He is one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys whose law firm has spread contributions of $11,600 or more to all the candidates but Epstein. Personal injury firms Cooney & Conway, Power Rogers, Tomasik Kotin Kasserman, Wise Morrissey, GWC Injury Lawyers, and Salvi Schostok & Pritchard all distributed similar amounts. Clifford and other donors did not respond to requests for comment.

In two recent public forums, including one hosted in February by Injustice Watch, the candidates described different approaches to dealing with recusing themselves from cases involving campaign donors.

Reyes and Cobbs said they would always remove themselves from cases involving campaign donors. Epstein said he would set up independent bodies to determine conflicts of interest, which a spokesman for Reyes later said he would do as well.

Howse said he did not look at his donation filings and would conduct himself ethically. McBride said she would recuse whenever there was a conflict or an appearance of a conflict. Harris did not attend and did not respond to requests for comment.

Neville answered a question about his approach to recusals by saying he was “going to decide cases as I always have, on a case-by-case basis.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that Jesse Reyes’s pledge to create an independent body to determine conflicts of interest was expressed through a spokesman and not at a public forum.

Injustice Watch intern Connor Echols contributed reporting.

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