This article by Dan Petrella was published August 3, 2022 on chicagotribune.org.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago by the conservative Liberty Justice Center on behalf of John Matthew Chancey, Fair Courts America and Restoration PAC, comes three months before Illinois voters will cast ballots in two state Supreme Court races that will determine whether Democrats maintain their 4–3 majority on the state‘s highest court.
Seeking to preserve Democratic control of all three branches of state government, Democrats in the legislature approved a measure last year that bars judicial candidates from receiving campaign cash from out–of–state contributors and groups that don’t disclose their donors.
This year, lawmakers approved another measure that bans contributions in excess of $500,000 per election cycle from a single source to independent expenditure committees set up to support or oppose judicial candidates.
In their lawsuit, Chancey and the PACs argue that both laws violate free–speech rights established in cases including the U.S. Supreme Court‘s landmark Citizens United decision, which opened the door to unlimited political contributions.
“The Supreme Court has recognized that contributions to political campaigns are protected speech, and thus a government must prove that restrictions on campaign contributions pass First Amendment scrutiny,” the lawsuit says. “Here, the two restrictions on contributions in judicial races cannot meet this test.”
The lawsuit, which names the Illinois State Board of Elections and Attorney General Kwame Raoul as defendants, asks the federal court to grant a preliminary injunction blocking the restrictions and to overturn them as unconstitutional.
In arguing against the restrictions, the lawsuit says the state law unconstitutionally prohibits Chancey, who practiced law from 1978 until retiring in 2016, from contributing to friends and acquaintances running for seats on the bench.
Likewise, Fair Courts America and Restoration PAC, which share a Downers Grove address and have the same committee treasurer, according to federal campaign finance records, argue that they‘re being deprived of the ability to raise and spend more $500,000 supporting or opposing judicial candidates this year, which they contend violates the First Amendment.
As of June 30, Restoration PAC had nearly $436,000 in the bank, while Fair Courts America had just under $30,000 on hand and outstanding debts of $272,000, all in loans from Restoration, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Restoration PAC was founded by businessman Doug Traux, who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination of U.S. Senate in 2014.
While there is some legal precedent for tighter restrictions on campaign fundraising in judicial races, the lawsuit argues that the new Illinois law goes bevond the permissible steps to prevent corruntion and preserve the integrity of the courts.
Outside of judicial races, state law allows independent expenditure committees to raise and spend unlimited sums supporting or opposing candidates, so long as they don‘t coordinate directly with any campaign.
“It‘s obvious that Illinois politicians have passed laws trying to disenfranchise their opponents by restricting their political speech,” Truax said in a statement. “That‘s unconstitutional and anti-American and both laws need to be struck down immediately.”
State Board of Elections spokesman Matt Dietrich declined to comment on the pending lawsuit, and a spokeswoman for the attorney general‘s office did not respond late Wednesday.
The lawsuit comes after billionaire Ken Griffin gave $6.25 million to another independent expenditure committee, Citizens for Judicial Fairness, before the new law limiting individual contributions took effect in May.
Illinois has a history of record–setting spending on judicial races, highlighted by the successful 2020 campaign to unseat Democratic Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride.
Kilbride and the main group opposing his retention together raised more than $11.7 million, the most expensive retention vote on record nationally.
Kilbride‘s removal from the bench set off a chain of events that led the Democratic–controlled General Assembly to draw new boundaries for the state‘s five judicial districts in an effort to preserve their party‘s court majority.
On the Nov. 8 ballot, Democratic Lake County Associate Judge Elizabeth “Liz” Rochford faces Republican Mark Curran, the former Lake County sheriff, in the race for the Supreme Court seat in the new and Judicial District, which includes Lake, McHenry, DeKalb, Kane and Kendall counties.
In the new 3rd Judicial District, comprising DuPage, Will and Kankakee counties, appointed Republican Justice Michael J. Burke faces Democratic Appellate Judge Mary K. O‘Brien.
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