Kilbride wins retention, but campaign illustrates need for action

Illinois’ most expensive and bitter Supreme Court retention campaign ended yesterday as Justice Thomas Kilbride garnered enough votes to serve another 10-year term on the state’s high court, despite targeted opposition.

Kilbride, from the 3rd Judicial District, received about 65.5 percent of the vote. He needed a supermajority of 60 percent to retain his post.

By contrast, Justices Charles Freeman and Thomas Fitzgerald – who ran for retention in the 1st Judicial District (Cook County) this general election – garnered 74.8 percent and 76.7 percent of the vote respectively.

Although Kilbride’s victory was no squeaker, the “yes” vote percentage he received was the smallest of any Illinois Supreme Court retention candidate in the last 30 years.

In 1980, 5th Judicial District Supreme Court Judge Joseph Goldenhersh received 67.4 percent of the vote on way to winning another 10-year term. Outside of that, all other retention-seeking justices netted 70+ percent of the vote. (Voters have never failed to return a retention-seeking Illinois Supreme Court justice to the bench.)

Kilbride’s successful retention bid was the state’s most expensive such campaign, with proponents and opponents raising more than $3.2 million since July 1, and unprecedented by the degree to which opponents actively campaigned against his candidacy.

First elected as a Democrat in 2000, Kilbride was targeted for ousting by business interests and tort-reform proponents, who fundraised, campaigned and advertised against him.

Leading opponent group JUSTPAC put Kilbride in its crosshairs, in part, for his participation on a 4-2 majority decision striking down a 2005 law which capped medical malpractice awards.

Opponents also sensed an opportunity because Kilbride’s district, which stretches along I-80 from Joliet to the Quad-Cities, leans Republican. The majority of Kilbride’s funding, both in this retention election and in his 2000 campaign, came from the Democratic Party of Illinois.

While Kilbride was victorious, just over the border in Iowa, three Supreme Court justices there did not fare as well. Incensed by the Iowa Supreme Court’s 7-0 decision that legalized gay marriage, conservative organizations spurred voters to boot the three judges who were up for retention this November.

As in the Kilbride race in Illinois, the opponents targeted the Iowa judges because they disagreed with one ruling, not because of the justice's failure to correctly apply the law, or out of temperament or corruption concerns. In both, opponents used attack ads to slam the justices’ decisions.

Judicial campaigns have grown increasingly bitter and costly over the last two decades, which has resulted in growing public concern about the independence of the judiciary. This November’s contentious retention campaigns in several states appear to be an extension of this disturbing trend.

And the well-funded interest groups and political parties who dominate these acrid campaigns show no interest in slowing their spending or involvement. On the contrary, the results in Iowa – and perhaps even Illinois – may only encourage such involvement.

Illinois must not allow its judicial system to be further degraded. Fortunately, there are options on the table which would insulate the judiciary – such as optional public financing systems to pay for candidates’ campaigns – and help restore voter confidence in the courts. If anything, we hope this year’s disturbing judicial campaigns nationwide spur action on such proposals.