Illinois judicial candidates are frustrated with new ban on out-of-state donations

A judge sits with a gavel with outstretched hands of people offering money, some X's over the out-of-state donations.

Illustration by Veronica Martinez for Injustice Watch

An Illinois law banning out-of-state donations to judicial campaigns has frustrated candidates and forced some of them to return family members’ contributions. But several of them say the law overlooks a more pressing problem: the potential influence that wealthy donors, corporations, and special interest groups inside Illinois wield in elections and court decisions.

When the Illinois General Assembly passed Senate Bill 0536 last year updating the state’s campaign finance rules, lawmakers had hoped that the legislation would rein in the growing number of donations from donors who don’t live in the state and groups that give money to campaigns without disclosing who they got it from, such as super PACs, which can raise unlimited donations from corporations, unions, associations, and individuals.

“It all comes back down to trying to make sure our judicial elections have integrity, and that people trust the results are the results from the voters and not from outside groups spending inordinate amounts of money to achieve whatever shadow objectives they have,” said Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, the bill’s primary sponsor, in an interview with Injustice Watch.

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As of April 28, 26 judicial candidates running in the June 28 primary election had raked in almost $90,000 from out-of-state donors, but most of the donors were individuals. Though many of those donations have been returned, several candidates said they don’t understand how the small donations that they got from family and friends who live outside the state will create influence on the courts, especially because those donors are unlikely to interact with the Illinois judicial system.

An Injustice Watch analysis of campaign finance data shows that 89% of out-of-state donations received by candidates as of April 28 came from individuals, and only 11% came from corporations and political action committees. More than three-quarters of those out-of-state donations were for $1,000 or less.

One of the candidates forced to return donations was attorney Meridth Hammer. She is running in a three-way Democratic primary race against Claudia Silva-Hernandez, who most recently worked for the clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County on labor issues, and Judge Thomas Donnelly to fill former Circuit Judge Sharon M. Sullivan’s vacancy. Donnelly was appointed to the seat by the state supreme court after Sullivan’s retirement and must defeat the challengers to keep it.

Hammer said she was upset when she found out that she had to return almost $3,000 from five donations from family and friends in her home state Indiana.

“It was gut-wrenching to have to give the money back,” she said.

Hammer’s campaign committee has raised almost $60,000 as of May 18, most of it is money that she loaned herself. She said returning the out-of-state donations added to the unique challenges that judicial candidates already face while fundraising for their campaigns. Illinois law forbids anyone running for judge to directly solicit donations. Only committees established on their behalf can receive and raise the money.

In-state interests groups can still spend big

Jim Gleffe, who’s running for a seat in the 15th subcircuit in the southwest suburbs against attorney Bernadette Barrett, said the law is not effective in leveling the playing field among candidates. Wealthier candidates often have the advantage of being able to self-fund their campaigns while leaving others unable to make up the difference. He said the Illinois Legislature should limit the scope of the law to exclude relatives and close friends or to cap the amount of out-of-state donations that candidates can accept.

Candidates who receive out-of-state donations can be fined up to 150% of the contribution if they don’t return the money within 30 days or donate an equal amount to a charity of their choice, said Matt Dietrich, a spokesperson for the Illinois State Board of Elections.

Gleffe, currently the deputy chief of staff and labor counsel at the county clerk’s office, said he received $500 from out-of-state family friends and opted to donate the funds to a local domestic violence shelter. His campaign committee has raised about $135,000 as of May 18, with almost two-thirds coming from Gleffe and his wife, lobbyist Kristen Bauer.

Campaign finance reform experts note that the ban on out-of-state donations for judicial candidates doesn’t address the bill’s intention of deterring outside influence that is more likely to come from in-state corporations and special interest groups.

ShawnTe Raines-Welch, a 4th subcircuit judicial candidate married to Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, received $10,000 from the Louisiana-based Intensive Specialty Hospital. The hospital also donated $24,000 to Welch’s campaign in June 2021 and is a subsidiary of the Cedar Health Group, a New Jersey company that recently got state approval to reopen a shuttered hospital in suburban Melrose Park, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. Welch co-sponsored a bill signed into law in April 2021 that cleared the way for the project. Raines-Welch’s campaign returned the out-of-state donation.

But she has also received at least $87,000 in contributions from several in-state PACs and labor groups, including the LIUNA Chicago Laborers’ District Council PAC, which gave her campaign $20,000.

She also received a suite at the United Center for a fundraiser valued at more than $4,000 from MuniBuy, a municipal finance company owned by Chicago lawyer and lobbyist Brian Hynes. Hynes also owns the Vendor Assistance Program, which buys debt from the state’s unpaid bills and charges the state late fees. The company is now facing a civil lawsuit in Cook County alleging that it created two out-of-state companies to illegally transfer purchased Illinois debt to Florida and Puerto Rico and allegedly avoid paying Illinois income taxes.

Raines-Welch did not respond to requests for comment. As of May 18, her campaign has raised nearly $440,000 for her judicial bid, almost half of that coming from Democratic state lawmakers.

Reining in big spending in state supreme court races

Candidates for circuit court judge are the largest group affected by the recent campaign finance law, given their numbers. But candidates said the bans on out-of-state contributions and dark money are likely a response to the torrent of dollars that has poured into state supreme court and appellate court elections in the past two decades.

Insurance company State Farm was involved in a high-profile case that has been cited as an example of the influence that corporations and special interests can have on the Illinois courts. A group of State Farm customers filed a class-action lawsuit in 2012 accusing the Illinois-based insurance giant of contributing millions of dollars to the U.S. Chamber ​​of Commerce and the Illinois Civil Justice League to support former Judge Lloyd Karmeier’s bid for an Illinois Supreme Court seat in 2004.

The plaintiffs alleged that State Farm supported him so that he could eventually help overturn a $1 billion judgment against the company by voting in their favor, which he did in 2005. State Farm settled the case in 2018 for $250 million without admitting wrongdoing.

Campaign finance experts say the 2010 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC, which allowed corporations and outside interest groups to spend unlimited funds on campaigns, intensified their flow of unrestricted money into elections. The 2019-2020 election cycle for state high court races was the most expensive one in the nation’s history, according to a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice, with donors collectively contributing nearly $98 million.

In 2020, Citizens for Judicial Fairness, a super PAC backed by Chicago hedge fund manager and multibillionaire Kenneth Griffin, raised nearly $6.2 million to fight Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride’s retention bid. Kilbride became the first sitting Illinois Supreme Court judge to lose a retention bid. In Illinois, almost $19 million was spent on state supreme court races that cycle, with about a third of the contributions coming from special interest groups, according to the Brennan Center’s report.

Harmon said Illinois legislators have not closed the door to additional judicial campaign finance reform measures.

“We are trying to rein in unlimited spending on important campaigns for judicial offices,” Harmon said.

He touted the passing of House Bill 0716 earlier this year, which makes three big changes to judicial elections. First, it creates a judicial elections task force to study the possibility of a new campaign finance system that would use public funds to subsidize judicial campaigns in exchange for candidates agreeing to follow spending limitations. Second, it limits self-funded candidate committees from receiving donations from any single person, excluding immediate family, exceeding $500,000. And third, it limits the amount independent expenditure committees, which raise money independently from candidates, can receive from any single person to $500,000.

Harmon said the bill is a direct attack to the Citizens United ruling and is a more aggressive approach to clamp down on dark money contributions.

That bill was sent to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk May 8, and, if he signs it, it would go into effect immediately.