As polls closed on Tuesday, Democrats and Republicans waited to see which party would win a majority in the Illinois Supreme Court following a vote billed as an abortion-rights referendum.
Two seats were up for election. In the 2nd District, Lake County Judge Elizabeth Rochford, a Democrat, faced off against former Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran. In the 3rd District, Supreme Court Judge Michael Burke, a Republican who served on the court for two years, faced Appeals Court Judge Mary Kay O’Brien.
Republicans will need to win both seats to overthrow the Democrats’ 4-3 majority. For now, that includes Chief Justice Mary Jane Theis, a Democrat who was on the ballot for a retention vote in Cook County.
The stage for these momentous elections was set two years ago, when Judge Thomas Kilbride, a Democrat who was seeking a third 10-year term on the court, failed to win his vote to stay, which does not had never happened before in Illinois. It was the Very expensive judicial detention campaign in history, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, with interests on both sides putting nearly $10 million in the running.
Kilbride’s defeat and the retirement of Justice Bob Thomas put two seats on the line in this year’s election. Democrats, seeing the possibility of losing their majority, redrew the judicial electoral map for the first time in 57 years to concentrate two seats in suburban Chicago. Party officials say they were reacting to demographic changes, a claim viewed with skepticism by some political observers.
The newly drawn 2nd District covers Lake, McHenry, Kane, DeKalb and Kendall counties. The 3rd District now covers DuPage, Will, Kankakee, Grundy, Iroquois, LaSalle, and Bureau counties.
Democrats also passed legislation prohibition judicial contributions from out of state or from groups that do not disclose their donors, a move some interpret as an attempt to restrict Republican fundraising. A federal judge ruled last month that the ban could not be enforced.
This law also states that a single person cannot pay more than $500,000 to a judicial candidate. But late in the race, Governor JB Pritzker, who had already given the maximum to every Democratic candidate, used his personal fund to to contribute another $500,000 each to Rochford and O’Brien; election officials said the tactic was permissible.
Pritzker’s campaign fund also contributed heavily to political action groups that supported both Democratic justices, while groups funded primarily by billionaires Ken Griffin and Richard Uihlein have spent millions to help Republicans in the race.
The races, sure to be hotly contested under any circumstances, gained momentum in June after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. States can now decide the legality of abortion within their borders, and the main message from the Democratic candidates and their supporters was that defeat would mean disaster.
“It all comes down to this seat,” said an advertisement paid for by All for Justice, an independent spending group funded primarily by labor unions and litigators. “It doesn’t matter who is governor or who controls Springfield. The judge from that seat on the Illinois Supreme Court will decide whether abortion remains legal in Illinois.
Curran, who ran for the U.S. Senate in 2020, has been explicit about his anti-abortion beliefs in this race, but told the Tribune in a recent interview that he wouldn’t try to rewrite state law. on the bench. Burke, who attended a right to life banquet in Illinois earlier this year, pitched his attendance at the event as a way to meet Republican voters and said he had no taken a public position on abortion.
Republican candidates and their allies, meanwhile, aimed to portray O’Brien and Rochford as soft on crime and puppets of Democratic power brokers, particularly former House Speaker Michael Madigan, who faces federal racketeering charges.
“The last hope of the Madigan machine is to elect O’Brien and Rochford to the Supreme Court,” said a a d of Citizens for Judicial Fairness, a group primarily funded by Griffin. “Ending Madigan’s Corrupt Sauce – Say No to Mary Kay O’Brien and Elizabeth Rochford.”
Democrats called those claims a lie; in a dO’Brien said Burke and his followers were airing it “to disguise their anti-woman agenda.”
Experience issues also featured in the 2nd District race. Rochford has been a judge since 2012 and the Illinois State Bar Association called her “highly recommended.”
Curran, who has served as a prosecutor and private attorney outside of his two terms as sheriff, has never served as a judge. The bar association rated it “not recommended.”
Curran countered in an interview that he had a lot of relevant legal experience. He further said that Rochford’s election would ensure the court remained in Democratic hands, continuing Illinois’ tradition of one-party rule in all three branches of state government.
In the 3rd District, Burke presented himself as a badass, touting endorsement from the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police and underscoring his own “highly recommended” rating.
O’Brien, who was ‘recommended’ by the bar association, saw it as a popularity contest, saying ‘it’s good if lawyers like you, but it’s better if litigants respect you’ , and pointed to his own endorsements of law enforcement groups. .
The extensive and often unpleasant publicity surrounding the races concerned Michael LeRoy, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who favors replacing judicial elections with merit-based appointments.
He said the flood of money and growing partisanship that have become central to campaigns are undermining public respect for the judiciary.
“When that happens, it’s a fundamental problem (because) the courts make decisions that are supposed to be followed in law,” he said. “It’s just one more pillar of our constitutional democracy that is shaken.”
Despite the negative messages, all of the candidates presented themselves in interviews with the Tribune as independent lawyers who would not be influenced by politics.
The current court will hear the November filewhich includes cases involving the legality of the Chicago Car Impoundment Order and a CONTESTATION on whether jailed pop star R. Kelly’s royalties should go to his former landlord or one of his alleged victims.
The victorious judges will take office on December 5 and begin hearing cases in January.