Partisan Justice

When someone is running for re-election, it is legitimate to question what they have accomplished. If a person is running, say, for county sheriff, a "track record" of letting violent felons go might be concerning. But a justice of a state supreme court is not a police officer or sheriff. He or she is there to follow statutes and case law precedent and to mete out justice. Sometimes that might mean making a decision that requires siding with someone unsavory or unpopular. Some of our most important case law - for example, the right to have a lawyer even if you can't afford to pay one - comes along with a criminal, because criminal cases can only be appealed by a defendant. A judge, particularly an appellate or supreme court judge, is ruling on the case and the principle of law, and should be free to do that. As I have written before, this is one of the dangers in having elected judges at all.

This problem is very apparent in the partisan and unfair attacks on the reelection campaign of Justice Thomas Kilbride to the Illinois Supreme Court. Today, the Illinois State Bar Association - a non-partisan group - has condemned a pro-business group's ad campaign against Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride. The group, called JUSTPAC, is running radio ads in markets ranging from the Quad Cities to Will County to Kankakee in which actors posing as hardened criminals describe their crimes and thank Kilbride for ruling in their favor. I am happy to report that some stations stopped running the ad once they were informed of its inaccuracy. But not all.

I have listened to the JUSTPAC ad and it is pure propaganda. It is inaccurate fear mongering which not-too-subtly appeals to race and gender stereotypes. And the ad is a lie in another important way: It claims to be interested in people's safety, but what JUSTPAC wants is to unseat Judge Kilbride so it can get an Illinois Supreme Court justice who will rule with it and against victims of medical malpractice. You see, JUSTPAC is affiliated with the Illinois Civil Justice League, which opposes a ruling by Kilbride and the court's other Democrats against a state law limiting the amount of money juries can award victims of medical malpractice, reasoning that the state constitution empowers juries, not legislators, to make those decisions. JUSTPAC has spent about $600,000 on these ads.

In my previous post about this subject, I spoke of John Grisham's book, The Appeal, in which he describes a plot to make sure the "right" justice is on the court to overrule a trial verdict against a chemical company - a plot which succeeds. This campaign against Justice Kilbride seems to be a case of life imitating fiction.

The group underwriting these ads is only interested in themselves and their money - not public safety and criminal law. They want to get rid of Justice Kilbride for doing his job - interpreting the constitution. Wherever you might come down on the idea of limiting medical malpractice awards (and, by the way, these awards are not the reason health care is so expensive). Spending money in this way, and being dishonest about what you are saying and why you are saying it, is the outside of enough. If you are going to point your fingers at someone, your hands had best be clean.