Supreme Court candidates weigh in on guidelines for judges, campaign public financing in new questionnaire
March 9, 2012 FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE CONTACT: Whitney Woodward (312) 335-1767
Candidates agree on need to adopt recusal standards, but differ on components
CHICAGO – The candidates for an open seat on the Illinois Supreme Court view judicial administration very differently, according to the results of a candidate questionnaire released today by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform (ICPR) and the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice.
Answers to the questionnaire are available at http://ilcampaign.org/2012-illinois-election-resources and www.chicagoappleseed.org. Voters can learn what the candidates suggest the court should do to guide judges when assigned cases involving campaign supporters and where the candidates stand on proposals to create a judicial campaign public financing system.
Three Democratic candidates seeking election in the March 20 primary responded to the questionnaire: Judges Joy Cunningham, Aurelia Pucinski, and Mary Jane Theis. Two other candidates, Democrat Thomas Flannigan and Republican James Riley, did not respond.
Cunningham, Pucinski and Theis said they support establishing guidelines or procedures to help steer judges’ behavior when assigned cases involving campaign supporters or contributors, but they differed on what form such a recusal, also referred to as disqualification, system should take.
Current Illinois Supreme Court rules direct judges to disqualify themselves when their impartiality might reasonably be questioned, but the rules do not give direction about how judges should respond when campaign contributors appear before them in court.
In the landmark 2008 decision Caperton v. Massey, the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged that private contributions in judicial campaigns may necessitate judges to recuse from certain cases, and invited states to establish guidelines addressing it. The American Bar Association last year approved a resolution urging states’ courts to take action.
Ten states have adopted new guidelines to address recusal questions in the context of campaign support. The Illinois Supreme Court has not acted on the ABA’s recommendation.
The candidates offered their opinions on recusal and other judicial reform issues through a joint ICPR-Appleseed candidate questionnaire. The project seeks to educate Cook County voters about the candidates running for a 10-year term on the state’s highest court.
Pucinski, who is an appellate judge, said she believes judges should be responsible for knowing who has supported their campaigns; that the Supreme Court should adopt uniform standards to guide recusal; and that judges should disclose publicly their reasoning for recusing.
Cunningham, who is an appellate judge, indicated she supports creating uniform guidelines to guide recusal considerations and requests and that an outside/impartial arbiter should be tasked with automatically reviewing instances involving campaign support that exceeds an established level.
Theis, who has served on the state’s highest court through an interim appointment since October 2010, pointed to the recusal system adopted by Tennessee’s Supreme Court in January as a potential framework for Illinois’ system. However, Theis said she did not support a system in which an outside/impartial arbiter would automatically be given the authority to review whether a judge should recuse based on a level of campaign contributions.
Tennessee’s new system prohibits judges from hearing cases involving campaign backers if the judges’ “impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” Under this new framework, judges are required to explain, in writing, any recusal requests they deny while also creating a mechanism for recusal decisions to be appealed.
All three candidates indicated they support public databases so that voters can access information about judges’ campaign contributions. Pucinski stated that campaign committee bundlers – individuals who help political committees secure campaign contributions – should be disclosed.
Theis and Cunningham said they support the creation of a public financing system for judicial campaigns, which would provide public funds to assist campaigns of viable candidates. However, Theis said that she was unaware of such a proposal that was “politically viable.”
Pucinski said that she was opposed to the creation of a public financing system. In her explanation, Pucinski cited the cost to taxpayers of such a program and stated that attorneys seeking to become judges should use public service and outreach to build support.
View the candidates’ full responses to the questionnaire at: