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Judges for Sale

Campaign contributions for judges undermine the credibility of the judicial system. Merit selection of judges would be better, but public funding would lessen corruption immediately.
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This column originally appeared in the Chicago Journal.

Hey bud, would you like to buy a judge? Judges in Illinois can be bought by cash or votes.

The Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Cook County buys judges with the promise of votes, naming them to the party's official slate in exchange for implicit support. The key phrase at the slating session of prospective judges is "I am a lifelong Democrat," which is code for saying, I'll decide cases when I can the way the party wants.

Terry Lavin, a current slated candidate, put his credentials for judge at the slating session this way: "I have been a loyal Democrat. I voted in each of the Democratic primaries [of the] last twenty years. I helped the Speaker [Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan] out on a number of elections in the south suburbs, same thing for [former state Senate President] Senator Emil Jones. When the Democratic Party wanted somebody to go down and testify in Springfield, I did that. When they needed help writing legislation, I did that." Lavin is an able candidate, former president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association with many victories as a trial lawyer, but before the party slatemakers, that doesn't count as much as party loyalty.

The political parties choose the judicial candidates for the bedsheet ballot, which has so many people running for so many offices that even informed political junkies don't know much about the candidates for judges except their party affiliation. But campaign contributions also buy judges.

Lawyers give contributions to the very judicial candidates before whom they will appear. A thousand dollar contribution to this candidate and a thousand to that and pretty soon, you become a very effective lawyer, winning a lot of cases. You don't need to know a whole lot of law if you buy the right judges.

On Dec. 15, 2011, the Illinois Campaign Finance Reform Task Force held public hearings on its working draft report, Public Campaign Financing and Illinois Elections. It was an excellent background report providing balanced information on the state of campaign financing, including judicial campaigns. The final report will be given to the governor this month.

The weakness in the draft, which more than a dozen witnesses including political and civic leaders from New Jersey and New Mexico pointed out, was that it ended without making any recommendations. This is despite the fact that the report provides evidence of major problems in interest group involvements in campaigns and the undue influence of large donors. I, and the other witnesses, testified that the Task Force needed to add a conclusion in support of the adoption of public funding -- most especially, public funding of judicial campaigns.

Fittingly, the task force was meeting a week after former Governor Rod Blagojevich was sentenced to 14 years in jail for public corruption. Altogether more than 1,500 public officials have been convicted since the 1970s of corruption. Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago has estimated the "corruption tax" on the taxpayers is over $500 million a year.

Operation Greylord and other corruption investigations by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney General have led to the conviction of judges, lawyers and court personnel-fixing cases -- even murder cases -- for bribes. The nexus of party politics, crime and the courts has been known for decades.

But even when the mob isn't involved, campaign contributions for judges undermine the credibility of the judicial system. In downstate judicial elections, supporters and opponents of "tort reform" and the outcome of "tort" lawsuits spent millions of dollars electing and defeating certain judicial candidates to win verdicts in the courtroom.

Illinois has a new campaign finance law which went into effect this year, but restrictions on truly large contributions (beyond $5,000 a person per candidate) and better reporting requirements are not enough. I personally support public financing at all levels like they have in Maine. But as I urged the task force, we must demand that the state legislature and governor pass legislation at least to support public funding of judicial elections. Merit selection of judges would be better still, but public funding would lessen corruption immediately.

2012, the year Blagojevich heads to prison, should be the year when we take money (and improper influence) out of judicial elections.