Voting in Illinois by absentee ballot commenced on Sept. 24. As usual, some races are deemed more important to the voter than others. Of course, leading the ballot will be for president of the United States. And we have certainly been bombarded on that race.
Sometimes other races are lower on the ballot. Most have candidates squaring off, but others have issues to be decided. This could be a bond issue or consent to raise taxes. While these other voting opportunities appear lower on the ballot, they are still quite important. One area often lower down is the retention of judges.
We have all seen the fight in Congress involving the approval of a presidential nomination to the United States Supreme Court. The federal judgeship is quite different. There is no election, merely appointment, and then confirmation by the Senate. That confirmation is even more important in that these justices are appointed for life. Now we will see this process to the extreme with the death of Justice Ginsburg.
Not so in the state courts. In Illinois, Appellate and Supreme Court justices serve 10 years while circuit judges serve six years after a successful election, as mandated by the Illinois Constitution. At the end of that elected term, there is no new election, but the judge or justice must run for retention of that position for another similar length of years. There is no opposing candidate in a retention, but it requires a 60 percent affirmative vote to remain in office for that next term.
Many legal scholars have opposed any judicial election on the basis that independence of the courts should not be threatened. They fear that judges will become politicized and may have to make decisions based on being re-elected rather than voting for the correct legal decision. It could well allow money to enter the arena for favorable decisions. It is believed by most that a judiciary selection should not be over-politicized.
No doubt the staffing of the U.S. Supreme Court has been an unbelievable scramble for confirmation. Right now an appointment could change the conservative vs. liberal balance. On the state level, however, we have not often seen a political party weighing in on the quality of the judge up for retention.
This year, people of the Third Judicial District will have a vote on the retention of its Supreme Court justice. There are seven justices on the Illinois Supreme Court. Kankakee, Iroquois, and Will counties are in the Third Judicial District stretching from the Indiana border to Iowa with 18 other counties. In 2000, we elected Thomas Kilbride for such a position and retained him in 2010. He now will stand for his second, and perhaps his final, retention. For the first time, his retention has come under fire from the Illinois Republican Party and not just from our district. Cook County has three justices while the other districts have one each. Since all three Cook County justices were Democrats at their elections, with Justice Kilbride, “Democratic justices” now appear to have a 4-3 edge in the Supreme Court. The Republicans want that majority. This even though Supreme Court retention seats have no party affiliation on the ballot, as candidates for retention do not run under any political party
There are allegations of Justice Kilbride’s closeness with Cook County Democrats. They have criticized his vote on certain cases even though the vote was unanimous at 7-0. They also do not point out that one vote is only a small part of any binding decision. There must be a majority vote for such a ruling in a case. They just want him to fail to receive the 60 percent vote so that they can try to seat a Republican person after a new election. Retention opposition from a political point challenges the very core foundation of judicial independence. There are no blue or red robes, just black.
Let’s look at candidate Kilbride and his success as a State Supreme Court justice. He was voted to be the chief justice from 2010 through 2013 by his peers on the bench. The Illinois State Crime Commission honored him with a “Judicial Award of Excellence.” The Illinois News Broadcasters made him the “Illinoisan of the Year.” The Illinois Judges Association presented him with “Justice for All Award.” The Community Caring Conference voted him into its Hall of Fame for his efforts. None of these awards were based on party politics.
Years ago, I was honored to be elected to the American Board of Trial Attorneys, ABOTA. It is a group of lawyers who have tried the most jury trials with honor and impeccable credentials. There is an even balance of plaintiff and defendant members. It is totally apolitical. A few years ago, that revered body presented Justice Kilbride with one of its “Judge of the Year” awards.
Even more important is his devotion to his region. Raised in Kankakee, the son of Coleen and Leo Kilbride, a lifelong insurance adjuster, Justice Kilbride went to law school and practiced in the Quad Cities for many years. He specialized in cases involving legal aid and working with the needy. He was elected to the Supreme Court the very first time he sought a political or judicial office. Since then, he has worked to put cameras in the court rooms. Having complete transparency has always been a driving force for him.
In spite of his demanding schedule, Justice Kilbride has had a place for Kankakee and Iroquois counties in his taking time to be at the local courthouses for recognition of special people or the honoring of local citizens. He arranged for the Third District Appellate Court to leave its comfortable chambers in Ottawa and come to Kankakee Community College where real cases were argued before three appellate justices. These efforts brought the working of the upper level courts to our local citizens including young students perhaps leaning toward a career in law. To have these justices hear the arguments locally has been quite special.
Justice Kilbride’s record on the bench is free of prejudice, sexual bias, or political pressures. He votes his mind with a philosophy that comes from his hometown. Read about this man before you vote. Thomas Kilbride needs your vote, and we all need to vote this year wherever we live. Now retired, I don’t plan to argue before his court in future, so this isn’t some attempt to gain favor. In plain words, Justice Kilbride deserves to be retained.