Washington Post: Judge fights in Iowa, Illinois signal new era for retention elections

Written by admin on December 5th, 2010

The Washington Post reports on how the flood of campaign cash is affecting more than just the legislative races.

Is the politicizing of judicial races in our best interests?

Washington Post

What was unusual about the Illinois race is that it was uncontested. Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride was on the ballot alone, part of a regular election asking voters whether they want to keep him. These “retention elections” are held every decade for state Supreme Court justices in Illinois.

Kilbride faced opposition from a pro-business group, the Illinois Civil Justice League, that urged voters to oust him over of a string of civil decisions it found objectionable. But Kilbride responded, mobilizing the political and monetary might of Illinois Democrats – including unions, trial lawyers and the party itself – to withstand the group’s challenge.

After raising more than $2 million, Kilbride kept his job with 66 percent of the vote, meeting the 60 percent threshold required by Illinois law to stay in office. But he complained bitterly about being forced to turn into a glad-handing politician, something he considers inappropriate for a judge.

Even if Illinois provided the most expensive retention election this year, it certainly wasn’t the most controversial – or consequential. That occurred in Iowa, where voters took the nationally unprecedented step of ousting three of seven Supreme Court justices after a well-funded opposition group, Iowa for Freedom, attacked the justices over their ruling last year to give constitutional protection to same-sex marriage in the state.

Observers on both sides of the Iowa election agree that its result will reverberate in courts far beyond Des Moines. “The impact on sitting judges is tremendous,” says Alexander Bryner, the former chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court. “Once we have a result that gets rid of sitting judges because they decided a politically unpopular issue, the message sent to all judges on the bench is, ‘Be careful.’ “

Whether that is a good thing, of course, is a point of debate. Supporters of an independent judiciary say that judges must not become beholden to majority will, but many others believe that courts – particularly in states that do not hold head-to-head elections – have accumulated more power in recent years than initially intended


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