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.
From Front line:
In “Justice For Sale,” FRONTLINE correspondent Bill Moyers examines the impact of campaign cash on the judicial election process and explores the growing concern among judges themselves that campaign donations may be corrupting America’s courts.
In the 39 states where voters elect some or all of their judges (see map of states), special interest money is pouring into judicial races helping to finance expensive tv ads, media advisers and pollsters, and threatening to compromise judicial independence and neutrality. This report includes a rare interview with U.S. Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy who speak out about the threat to judicial integrity.
“If there is the perception or the reality that courts are influenced in their decisions based upon campaign funding sources,” says Justice Kennedy, “we will have a crisis of legitimacy, a crisis of belief, a crisis of confidence.”
“Justice for Sale” looks at judges’ races in three states–Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Texas–talking to judges, media consultants and special interest groups who are donating big money to judicial campaigns.
In Pennsylvania, the pro-business group Pennsylvnians for Effective Government (PEG) surveys the voting habits of state Supreme Court justices and funds those who share their philosophy. PEG leader Bill Cooksees his group as being in competition with trial lawyers and labor unions who also contribute heavily to judicial campaigns. “Judicial elections are very partisan,” he says. “Do the judges know who the big donors are? Of course!” Helen Lavelle, a media consultant for a Pennsylvania judge who won re-election in 1999 acknowledges, “We sell a judge the same way we sell anything.” Although she believed in her candidate’s integrity, she’s concerned about money’s corrupting influence. “It’s unfair. People are ending up with a chance to be on a bench who have no business being there.”
Traveling to Louisiana, this FRONTLINE report investigates how in 1998 a business group financed a campaign against Pascal Calogero Jr., Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, whom they viewed as unsympathetic to industry’s concerns. But after Calogero backed down on a crucial issue (and supported curbing a student law clinic which had several times successfully represented poor people against oil and gas interests in environmental cases), Calegero was able to secure enough donations from business to help him win another term.
In Texas–which Moyers calls “the heavyweight in partisan, expensive, knock-down, drag-out brawls for control of a state Supreme Court”– FRONTLINE looks at how special interests and their fundraising has dramatically changed the make-up of the Texas Supreme Court. Twenty years ago, Texas was known as the ‘lawsuit capital of America’ with judges and juries favoring trial attorneys and their clients. By 1998, the Texas Medical Association had successfully spearheaded a campaign by business to take back the courts. Today, all nine members of the Texas Supreme Court are Republicans and staunchly pro-business, according to critics. Texas Supreme Court Justice Tom Phillips is one of several Texas legislators, lobbyists and judges who talk about the politics and money scramble to run for judicial office. Although Phillips calls for reforms to lessen money’s influence, during his ten years on the court, he’s had to learn to play the money game.
Throughout this report, FRONTLINE tracks the mounting evidence–polls, surveys and reports–that trust in judges and the courts is eroding because of the perception that campaign contributions to judges are affecting their decisions on the bench. For example, a June 1999 survey conducted by the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas State Bar found that almost half the judges in Texas believe campaign contributions significantly influence judicial decisions. Lawyers who appeared before the courts were even more skeptical of the system–79% believe that campaign contributions affected the decisions.
“Try as they might, the nine justices of the Supreme Court of Texas today have their next election on their mind every day of their life,” says Bob Gammage, a former member of the Texas Supreme Court. Gammage believes that the justices strive to be impartial, but are dependent upon their campaign donors: “If you don’t dance with them that brung you, you may not be there for the next dance.”
Note it is reported that it takes over ONE MILLIONS DOLLARS to get elected to the Penn. Supreme Court. What is the quid pro quo for that? No wonder why their disciplinary board goes after attorneys that represent the little guy and scream corruption when the courts consistently rule in favor of big business, with no statute or common law to support such decisions–just pure nonsense. Ask Andy Ostrowski about that and how he was wrongfully disciplined for speaking out against corruption.
on justice eroding in the US:
No wonder why I was taken out for running this blog and supporting the average citizen who did not receive justices, a law, a statute, anything, to support a bogus decisions.
No wonder why our Appellate Court and US Supreme Court keeps briefs inaccessible to the public so citizens that cannot afford an attorney have little hope of justice. The biggest firms and brightest attorneys (not necessarily the most expensive), are writing briefs that no one else will see or can use for their pro se cases.
What gives Illinois government the right to even withhold briefs from the public? These should be online, for crying outloud.
The ARDC files are now all scanned in and they should be made public too.
The Illinois government does not own these documents personally. They belong to the people, and as such, they should be made publicly available.
What gives Illinois Clerk of Court Dorothy Brown the right to withhold pleadings from the public online and force people to go downtown to pay $1 for the first two pages and then 50 cents and a quarter after that when Federal Court documents are 8 cents per page on Pacer. What is the legal justification for that? Why has no one sued? When Pacer was sued for raising their prices to 10 cents per page, the price ended up once again at 8 cents per page.
Illinois citizens demand justice and fairness.
Too many cases now involve judges and lawyers that should not be in the courtroom. They make money illegally and through bribes. Dennis Wians is currently filing a brief at the Court of Appeals for a bogus large judgment rendered against him in probate. He claims he only used his Power of Attorney to take care of his loved one. The miscreant lawyers ignored his complete and full accounting and the court rubber stamped a huge judgment against him. He then went and filed Bankruptcy and the legal miscreants followed him there claiming the judgment was valid and that it was intentional and the debt should not be discharged. This is not the first time this has happened. It also happened in the Alice Gore Case (the famous one where her 29 gold teeth were pulled and a feeding tube inserted against her will. she still loved to eat and ate quite well with 29 gold teeth in her mouth). Please pray for Dennis Wians, he will need your prayers and support.
The Mary Sykes case still has no discovery. It was quashed in trial court and the ARDC refused to allow myself or Ken Ditkowsky discovery. We need a trust accoutning.
We need to find out where the valuable coins are and other bank accounts. The Treasury of the State of Illinois claims it can barely pay the bills. But thieves in the courtroom take millions with impunity and uninvestigated. The Federal Govt has a tax rate of 50% for criminal gains. Why no Illinois? Why just 4%. Forget that nonsense. Illinois needs to ratchet up the tax rate to criminals and START COLLECTING on the taxes when tax fraud by court actors is reported.
Also, why no push to test doctors, lawyers, judges, police, fire, teachers, p0liticians, etc., for psychopathy? It can now be detected with a PET brain scan. These are very dangerous entities with no love, guilt, remorse, conscience and they only enjoy bullying, injustice and criminal activity. These people should be tested and delicensed. Brain scans are now down to $600 each, according to a local commercial.