Palatine committeeman’s judicial bid appears to violate ethics rules

The Illinois judicial code states that judicial candidates “shall not act as a leader or hold an office in a political organization.”

One candidate for a northwestern Cook County judicial subcircuit seat, Matt Flamm, nevertheless continues to serve as the Democratic committeeman for Palatine Township.

Legal experts who spoke with Injustice Watch say that serving as a committeeman violates the judicial code, which governs the conduct of judges.

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Palatine committeeman Matt Flamm.

Flamm is one of five candidates in the March 17 Democratic primary for the 13th subcircuit seat. The seat is temporarily held by Michael Gerber, who was appointed to fill the position until the election, and who is another of the five candidates.

Gerber, a former longtime Cook County state’s attorney, received the Illinois Supreme Court appointment in May, 2019, after he ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the 2018 Republican primary.

The Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board has the authority to discipline judges who violate the judicial code, which was adopted by the state Supreme Court based on a model code of the American Bar Association. The canon that prohibits candidates or judges from holding judicial office was enacted, ethics experts say, to protect the judiciary from undue political influence.

The rules aim to restrict judges’ involvement in politics as much as is reasonable in a state where judges are elected, said Ray McKoski, a former Lake County circuit judge who now serves as Vice-Chair of the Illinois Judicial Ethics Committee.

“The restrictions on political activities for judges and judicial candidates are an attempt to balance the interests of judicial impartiality […] with the fact that judges are elected and have to participate in the political process,” said McKoski, noting that the rule is an “imperfect attempt to balance those interests.”

Authorities in several states have concluded that committeemen must step down to run for office. The Illinois Judicial Ethics Committee offered a 1998 advisory opinion that judges may not serve as members of the party central committee, which is comprised of the committeemen throughout the county.

But Flamm, a business and real-estate attorney, said that he isn’t backing out of the race. He contends that the rule does not apply to primary candidates.

“I’ve gotten legal advice about this and the rule says a judge or a candidate for election,” he said in an interview. “What I’ve been told is that prior to the primary I’m not a candidate for election, I’m a candidate for nomination.”

The judicial code defines a candidate as “a person seeking public election for or public retention in judicial office” and stipulates that the term public election “includes primary and general elections.”

James Alfini, former dean at law schools in Illinois and Texas, is among the experts who warn that holding a political office while running for judge undermines trust in the impartiality and integrity of the judicial decision. Many cases have political ramifications, said Alfini, and judges with close ties to political parties can have difficulty appearing impartial.

“I would think that the person running for office … should have to resign immediately,” said Alfini.

In addition to Flamm and Gerber, the three other candidates in the Democratic primary race for the subcircuit seat are Assistant State’s Attorney Susanne Groebner, who lost the 2018 Republican primary for a 13th subcircuit seat; prominent divorce lawyer Michael Minton; and Assistant Public Defender Joe Gump.