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Illinois has unique partisan system of electing, retaining judges

by Mike McCabe ~ September 2012 ~ Stateline Midwest »
Although judicial elections have long been a mainstay of the electoral landscape in many states, they have seldom attracted the same level of attention routinely paid to partisan contests for legislative seats or constitutional offices.
In recent years, however, a number of high-profile supreme court races have increasingly called attention to the means by which judicial officers are chosen.
Nationwide, states employ a variety of methods in selecting and retaining supreme court justices. Most rely on popular elections or some form of merit selection, but in a few states, justices are selected by other means, including legislative election.
Here in the Midwest, most states have opted to keep politics out of the selection process — at least in theory— with five states (Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota) employing merit selection systems for their high courts and three more (Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin) selecting justices by means of nonpartisan elections.
In Michigan and Ohio, candidates for the states’ highest courts are identified through partisan processes (by nomination in Michigan and by primary election in Ohio) but are ultimately selected through general elections that are technically nonpartisan.

Illinois, however, stands alone among Midwestern states in embracing both a fully partisan judicial election process and a unique combination of selection and retention procedures that separates it from all other states across the region.
Only in Illinois do candidates for the state Supreme Court run in a partisan general election in which their party affiliation is indicated on the ballot. And unlike the other five Midwestern states in which justices are elected, Illinois justices are subject only to uncontested retention elections (as opposed to contested reelections) following their initial 10-year terms of office.
Illinois is also the only state in the region in which Supreme Court justices are elected by district instead of at large in statewide elections, although justices in two of the region’s merit-selection states (Nebraska and South Dakota) are also appointed by district.
This distinctive combination of election and retention procedures in Illinois has produced some noteworthy races in recent years, while generating considerable debate among judicial observers.
In 2004, for example, two candidates for a downstate seat on the court raised a record total of $9.3 million, making it a more expensive race than 18 of the 34 U.S. Senate elections that year. Then in 2010, Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride raised $2.8 million in his successful bid to retain his seat, which, according to one study, was more than the total amount raised by all candidates in all other judicial retention elections nationally between 2000 and 2009.

Concerns about impartiality of judges
Is a partisan electoral process and all that goes with it really a best practice in judicial selection? Given the range of state approaches on this issue, the jury still appears to be out.
According to the Institute for the Advancement of The American Legal System, “the extent to which judges are able to interpret and apply the law impartially depends upon their ability to remain free from undue political pressure.”
Matthew Streb, associate professor and chair of political science at Northern Illinois University, agrees.
“Judges are not politicians in robes,” he says. “You don’t want them running on divisive partisan issues.”
And Illinois is not the only state in which questions have been raised about judicial elections; concerns about the growing partisanship and costs of such races have also surfaced in Michigan and Ohio.
Advocates of judicial elections contend that judges are public officials and that elections serve a useful purpose by holding them more accountable to voters.
But K.O. Myers, director of research and programs at the American Judicature Society, says that voter accountability isn’t necessarily preferable to maintaining an independent and unbiased judiciary. Myers argues that Illinois’ partisan election model “puts judges in the position of having to run political campaigns for jobs that are supposed to be non-partisan and unbiased.”
Despite these concerns, there have been recent attempts in merit-selection states to provide for the election of judges — an indication that the debate over judicial selection is likely to continue.


Article written by Mike McCabe, director of the CSG Midwest Office. Only in the Midwest highlights unique features of state governments in the Midwest.