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Illinois Supreme Court primaries for suburban district

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The state’s wealthiest man, Citadel CEO Ken Griffin, is again exerting influence in a race for an Illinois Supreme Court seat during an election cycle that could give Republicans a high court edge.

Griffin has funneled $6.25 million to an independent expenditure committee that two years ago spent millions in a successful effort to unseat a Democratic high court justice by linking him unfavorably to former House Speaker Michael Madigan.

The committee this time around already has spent more than $200,000 in the Republican primary, and Griffin said in a statement that Illinois residents “deserve fair and objective judges rather than the hand-picked candidates of Mike Madigan.”

The Democratic primary includes a candidate who has received political help from members of Madigan’s organization in the past. But Madigan, who faces federal corruption charges, has lost his most powerful party roles and there’s no evidence yet he has a hand in the race.

Four Republican and three Democratic candidates are seeking to win their party’s nominations in the June 28 primaries to fill a newly redistricted seat that is open due to the retirement of Republican Justice Robert Thomas, a former Chicago Bears kicker.

The district includes Lake, McHenry, DeKalb, Kane and Kendall counties, and the candidates are a mix of lower-court judges and career politicians. Three come “not recommended” for the state’s highest court by the Illinois State Bar Association.

There are no contested primaries for a second Supreme Court seat up for election this year, which is held by a Democratic justice in a district that includes DuPage, Will and Kankakee counties. The elections for two seats in November present the possibility that the court’s 4-3 Democratic majority could shift in favor of the GOP.

The general election is when Griffin’s money could come into serious play. The hedge fund executive, who has already spent $50 million to back Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin for governor, has once again poured money into Citizens for Judicial Fairness, a conservative independent expenditure committee.

Two years ago, the committee helped unseat Justice Thomas Kilbride by spending more than $4.3 million on campaign mailers, ads, phone calls and text messages portraying Kilbride as a Madigan lackey. Griffin contributed $4.5 million to the organization during that election.

Lavish spending in judicial races, which legislators have attempted to address, is a recent phenomenon in Illinois, according to Kent Redfield, a University of Illinois professor emeritus of politics, and could erode public trust in the fairness and legitimacy of the judiciary.

“The more that judicial elections look like any other election, the more that citizens will view judicial decisions as being the product of a partisan, money-driven, interest group dominated politics,” Redfield said. “It’s bad for the judiciary, it’s bad for the public support of liberal democratic institutions.”

The three candidates running in the Democratic primary are Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering and sitting judges Elizabeth “Liz” Rochford and René Cruz.

Rotering has been the nonpartisan elected leader of the North Shore suburb since 2011. She previously was a City Council member in Highland Park and worked as an attorney handling health care cases.

Rotering said in an interview that she is not a litigator but has been a practicing attorney over the last three decades, handling matters including corporate transactions and real estate, and filling a “quasi-judicial” role as an elected official.

Rotering was found “not recommended” for the state’s highest court by the Illinois State Bar Association after participating in the group’s in-depth review process.

The bar association does not publicly disclose its reasoning for its ratings of candidates outside Cook County, and Rotering said she is unsure why the bar group did not recommend her. But she said believes her 16 years as a public official running public hearings, applying rules and procedures and ensuring due process for her constituents has prepared her well for a place on the state’s highest court.

In 2018, Rotering ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for attorney general. According to a review of Rotering’s candidacy petitions from that race, which are required by candidates seeking elected office, several 13th Ward Democratic Organization allies of Madigan helped in gathering signatures, including Hugo Chavez, Raymond Nice and James Gleffe.

Rotering said she has “no relationship” to the former speaker. “When you’re getting thousands of signatures, people try to help you out by sharing them with others. You get your petitions out into the field, and then it sort of takes on a life of its own,” she said. “I don’t know how they got into their hands. … We’re still trying to figure that out.”

Rotering is endorsed by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, as well as pro-abortion rights groups Planned Parenthood Illinois Action and Personal PAC. Former House majority leader Barbara Flynn Currie and Andrea Zopp, a former deputy mayor to Rahm Emanuel, have donated to Rotering’s campaign fund.

Rochford was appointed as an associate judge in Lake County in 2012. She was a Cook County assistant state’s attorney in the appellate, misdemeanor and felony review divisions in the late 1980s before going into private practice, where she handled wills, trusts, and real estate matters.

Rochford currently handles guardianship cases in probate court, and was in the family division before that. She was found “highly recommended” by the Illinois State Bar Association and is endorsed by major labor groups including Teamsters Joint Council 25 and the Illinois AFL-CIO.

Over the last two decades Rochford donated more than $15,000 to now-indicted Chicago Ald. Ed Burke. Rochford said Burke and her late father, former Chicago police Superintendent James M. Rochford, had a relationship through their work for the city. She said she attended Burke’s annual fundraising party, but has not written any checks since federal agents raided Burke’s office in November 2018 as part of a federal corruption probe.

Rochford said she is passionate about improving mental health services in the courts and has begun improvements efforts locally. “Mental health issues are going to be one of the biggest challenges facing both courts and communities as we go forward,” Rochford said.

Rochford’s election committee is leading the Democrats in fundraising, with more than $245,000 available at the end of the March reporting period, and another roughly $400,000 raised since then.

Cruz is the presiding judge of the misdemeanor and traffic division in Kane County. He became an associate judge in 2012, overseeing family court, and was appointed by the state Supreme Court as a circuit court judge in 2016. The Illinois State Bar Association gave him a “recommended” rating for the Supreme Court seat.

Cruz, Kane County’s first Latino judge, said his prior work and personal experiences will bring diversity to the bench that will improve the judiciary.

He said his experience as a defense attorney helped him improve misdemeanor and traffic court operations by not requiring defendants to appear at nonsubstantive court hearings, as long as they face nonviolent charges.

“I didn’t want to force individuals to have to take a day off work, sit on a Zoom call or come into court and wait while they pay their attorney. They’re losing money, and then they’re risking losing their jobs at the same time,” Cruz said. “My perspective is that I work for the users of the system.”

The Republican primary candidates are former Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran, Lake County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Shanes, state Appellate Judge Susan Hutchinson, and Kane County Circuit Judge John Noverini.

Curran made an unsuccessful bid to oust Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin in 2020. During his 12 years as the elected sheriff in Lake County, the department dealt with periods of scandal and tumult. Some sheriff’s deputies issued a vote of no confidence in Curran near the end of his tenure in 2018, and the county settled a wrongful death suit for nearly $2 million after a man died following a scuffle with guards in 2011.

Before becoming sheriff, Curran was a Lake County prosecutor and an assistant attorney general for the state of Illinois. He’s now in private practice, handling criminal and civil cases.

Curran first ran for sheriff as a Democrat, and donated to the campaign of former Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Mike Madigan’s daughter, in the early 2000s. In 2008, he switched political parties, saying he thought Democrats had a culture of corruption. He also said he couldn’t remain a Democrat because he is anti-abortion.

Citizens for Judicial Fairness, the group funded by Griffin, has spent nearly $50,000 on campaign mail opposing Curran’s primary bid. The recently appointed chair of Citizens for Judicial Fairness, D.J. Eckert, did not respond to requests for comment.

Curran said he was not sure why Citizens for Judicial Fairness was opposing his run, although he acknowledged that he is not a typical Republican, having long believed in unions while also agreeing that the criminal justice system makes mistakes and that police departments need reforming.

The Illinois State Bar Association found Curran “not recommended” for the Supreme Court. Curran said hasn’t given the rating much thought and that he has extensive jury trial experience through his work as a prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer.

Citizens for Judicial Fairness has spent $171,000 on TV ads supporting Shanes, state campaign finance records show.

In addition, Shanes’ election committee has stockpiled the most money of the Republican candidates, with almost $245,000 on hand at the end of March and another $63,000 raised since then.

He was endorsed by the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police, and was found “highly recommended” by the Illinois State Bar Association.

He spent more than a decade working as a Lake County assistant state’s attorney prosecuting criminal defendants before becoming an associate judge in 2007. He was appointed to fill a circuit court vacancy by the Illinois Supreme Court in 2010, then was elected to the seat in 2012 and retained in 2018.

As deputy chief judge in Lake County, Shanes said he hears felony and law division cases, including murders, shootings and sexual assaults as well as complex civil matters.

“The Supreme Court is not the place for on-the-job training,” Shanes said, touting his own experience on the bench.

Shanes said his work with the Illinois Judicial Conference has prepared him for the justice seat. He was appointed to the conference by the Illinois Supreme Court, and works with other justice administrators to provide recommendations for improving the justice system statewide.

Hutchinson, a judge on the 2nd District Appellate Court, was found “highly recommended” by the Illinois State Bar Association. Hutchinson has been on the bench since 1981, first as an associate judge in McHenry and Lake counties and since 1994 as an appellate judge.

Prior to her time on the bench Hutchinson worked as a McHenry County assistant state’s attorney in the civil division. She was the first female judge in the 19th circuit, which then included Lake and McHenry counties.

Hutchinson authored the appellate court opinion reversing the conviction of Juan Rivera, who served 20 years in prison for the rape and killing of an 11-year-old girl in Waukegan but was cleared through DNA testing. The city of Waukegan settled Rivera’s wrongful conviction suit for $20 million in 2015.

Hutchinson, the only appellate court judge in the race, said her years reviewing lower court rulings have prepared her for the next level.

“I think there is, I won’t say a learning curve, but it is important that you understand the levels that you will be governing, so to speak,” Hutchinson said.

She would like to see improvements in court administration around access to court. She said she found the legislature’s recent redistricting of the state’s judicial court system, which affected the Illinois Supreme Court and appellate courts, “very disturbing” for reasons including that it forced litigants in places like Rockford to travel to Springfield for appeals.

Noverini oversees traffic and misdemeanor cases at the Elgin branch court. Noverini was found “not recommended” by the Illinois State Bar Association because he refused to participate in the evaluation process.

In an interview, Noverini called the bar association a “left-leaning” organization that represents attorneys, making it a “clear conflict of interest” to participate in the evaluations. He also took issue with several questions regarding efforts to improve diversity on the bench, which he said he found “inappropriate.”

The bar association evaluates judicial candidates’ qualifications by reviewing decisions that were overturned by higher courts and interviewing candidates, attorneys and others in the legal field who have firsthand experience working with candidates.

Noverini ran for a seat on the circuit court in Kane County in 2008 as a Democrat. Prior to that he held a seat on the Kane County Board as a Republican. He was also the chair of the Dundee Township Republican Party before running for judge.

He said that he ran as a Democrat for judge in 2008 because redistricting made it difficult for a Republican to win in his subcircuit race. At the time, he told the Daily Herald that the party’s leadership had lost its way and had become disconnected from average voters.

Noverini said that the “primary problem with our society today is fatherlessness.” From the bench, he said, he sees that people are stuck in the welfare system, and that the majority of people going to prisons and jails are from homes without fathers who could teach children about work ethic.

“This election cycle, trust me, people realize this is big,” Noverini said. “You can flip the Supreme Court from 4-3 Democrat to 4-3 Republican, the Democrats won’t control one branch (of government).”

Running unopposed in their parties’ primaries for Kilbride’s seat are Appellate Judge Mary O’Brien on the Democratic side and Supreme Court Justice Michael J. Burke, a Republican who was appointed to fill Thomas’ seat but then saw his district shift through legislative remapping.

Two recent pieces of legislation could affect future spending in judicial races. A law that recently went into effect prohibits out-of-state donations to judicial races. And a bill Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed in May caps donations from individuals in judicial races.

Griffin’s hefty donations to Citizens for Judicial Fairness, which has an Illinois mailing address, may be prohibited in the future under the new law. The recent legislation states that independent expenditure committees created to support or oppose judicial candidates cannot accept more than $500,000 per individual donor each election cycle, with excess donations going straight to the Illinois treasurer.

A separate issue in the race relates to judicial canons that state candidates for the bench should refrain from making “statements that commit or appear to commit the candidate with respect to cases, controversies or issues within cases that are likely to come before the court.”

Rotering, Rochford and Curran have in the past donated money to advocacy groups doing work around the issue of abortion.

Most of the primary candidates expressed concern about the politicization of the judicial branch and a growing mistrust of an impartial judiciary.

Hutchinson said the candidates should be “above the fray of this political activity.” She said she watched the Kilbride race in 2020 and thought the judge was unfairly attacked.

“We’re the ones that can stop certain things in their tracks, and for people to think that it’s politically based is not good for us, at all,” Cruz said.

ehoerner@chicagotribune.com


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