This article by Jonathan Bilyk was published October 17, 2022 on cookcountyrecord.com.
A federal judge has blocked Illinois from enforcing its law forbidding anyone from outside Illinois from contributing to the campaigns of those seeking election as judges, as the federal judge indicated the law appears to be based on little more than Illinois Democrats’ desire to maintain control of Illinois’ courts.
On Oct. 14, U.S. District Judge John Tharp issued a preliminary injunction against the Illinois State Board of Elections and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul in the court challenge to the law.
The ruling signals the judge believes the plaintiffs, represented by the Liberty Justice Center, of Chicago, hold a real chance of ultimately prevailing in their desire to see the law declared unconstitutional, as a violation of free speech rights.
In his ruling, the judge indicated he feared the limits were enacted with politicial motivations, not to fight perceived possibilities of corruption.
“… The State has not persuasively argued that there is a meaningful difference between in- and out-of-state residents’ abilities to corrupt, or create the appearance of corruption, in any sense of the term,” Judge Tharp wrote in his order imposing the injunction.
“As a result, Illinois’ exclusive targeting of out-of-state contributions raises a serious red flag that it is actually animated by what prospective out-of-state contributors have to say – or the ideologies of the judges whom they may tend to support – rather than public confidence in its judiciary.
“Whatever its intent, the ban on out-of-state contributions will likely be more effective in preserving the status quo of the state’s judiciary than in enhancing its appearance of integrity.”
The ruling comes as Illinoisans, especially in the northern parts of the state outside of Cook County, have been given the chance to elect two members of the Illinois state Supreme Court. Should Republicans prevail in the races, they would win control of the state high court for the first time since the state approved its current state constitution in 1970.
Faced with that prospect, Democratic lawmakers, who dominate the Illinois General Assembly, and Gov. JB Pritzker moved last year to pass new laws critics say were intended to make it more difficult for Republicans to win.
Shocked by the rejection of Democratic Illinois Supreme Court Justice Tom Kilbride in 2020, Democrats redrew state Supreme Court district lines, in a play to give themselves a chance to save at least one Democratic seat on the state high court and preserve their majority.
Under the Illinois state constitution, three of the court’s seven justices come from Cook County, which is home to about 40% of the state’s population.
The remaining four justices are each elected from one of the state’s four remaining judicial districts.
In the newly created Second District, Republican former Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran is running against Democratic Lake County Judge Elizabeth Rochford.
The Second District includes the counties of Lake, McHenry, Kane, Kendall and DeKalb.
In the state’s Third District, Republican incumbent Supreme Court Justice Michael Burke is running against Democratic Grundy County Judge Mary K. O’Brien, a former state lawmaker who was closely aligned with indicted former House Speaker Michael Madigan, before she was appointed to the bench directly from the General Assembly.
The Third District includes the counties of DuPage, Will, Kankakee, Grundy, Iroquois, LaSalle and Bureau.
Both Rochford and O’Brien have accused their Republican opponents of essentially being shills for conservative causes, including for the anti-abortion right to life movement.
However, these accusations don’t address Rochford’s and O’Brien’s extensive ties and openly stated support for progressive interests, including aligning themselves directly with abortion provider Planned Parenthood and labor unions, as well as Democratic elected officials.
Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker, a billionaire and himself one of the state’s most left-wing politicians, has donated big money to both Rochford and O’Brien in their contests.
Rochford and O’Brien have also drawn extensive support from prominent Democratic legislative leaders, and from other left-wing interests, including trial lawyers, labor unions, Planned Parenthood, teachers unions, and others.
The pair have also been backed by a political committee created by Democrats specifically to support their campaigns. Called All for Justice, the so-called independent expenditure committee has raised millions of dollars since it was opened in August, including from out-of-state sources.s
This includes $500,000 from the Fair Fight group, which is associated with prominent national progressive champion Stacy Abrams, who is running as a Democrat for governor of Georgia.
At the same time that they redrew state judicial district lines, Democrats in Springfield also rewrote state campaign finance law, to prohibit donations from out-of-state sources directly to judicial campaigns in Illinois.
The law specifically exempted the so-called independent expenditure committee, like All for Justice, from soliciting big money from both inside and outside Illinois.
Critics said the law was intended specifically to block donations from big donors outside Illinois, like business advocacy groups, from donating to the campaigns of Republican Supreme Court candidates in the new districts, and to give Democrats a big money advantage in the races.
Democrats also imposed a $500,000 limit on all donations to judicial campaigns.
Both laws were challenged in a lawsuit filed in federal court by the Liberty Justice Center, on behalf of named plaintiffs Matt Chancey, a lawyer and former Illinois resident; and two Illinois-based independent expenditure committees, Fair Courts America and Restoration PAC.
The lawsuit claimed the laws unconstitutionally infringed on the rights of people and organizations who may wish to participate in Illinois politics from using their money to speak, by donating to candidates they support.
Democrats and lawyers from the Attorney General’s office argued the laws are permissible, as the state wishes to ensure public confidence in a state judiciary in which political interference and influence is kept to a minimum.
Democrats made those arguments even as they poured millions of dollars into the state Supreme Court races.
Judge Tharp, however, said the state isn’t allowed to pick and choose who gets to donate, simply based on where they live or work.
If political campaign contributions are corrupting, the judge said, contributions from Illinois-based donors can contribute just as easily as those from those outside Illinois.
The judge noted past judicial scandals in Illinois, in which judges were bought by and took orders from local political bosses, illustrate the point.
“The special nature of judicial elections does not justify Illinois’ differential treatment of in- and out-of-state contributors in this manner,” Judge Tharp wrote. “The Court cannot ignore the gravity of the restriction with which it is faced: A state law prohibits an entire class of people from engaging in a distinct category of political expression during the electoral process.
“… The State does not (and cannot) explain why money is more corrupting simply because its source is from outside the state, so the premise that the out-of-state ban on campaign contributions materially enhances the state judiciary’s appearance of integrity is entirely without foundation.”
The judge also struck down the $500,000 contribution limit.
The judge said the limit does next to nothing to combat judicial corruption, “other than imposing some burden on plaintiffs’ exercise of their speech and associational rights.”
In response to the ruling, attorney Jeff Schwab of the Liberty Justice Center said they believe the judge ruled “correctly.”
“Illinois claims the ban on contributions to judicial candidate by out-of-state donors is necessary to prevent corruption but has failed to show that out-of-state contributions are more corrupting than in-state contributions,” Schwab said.
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