(Courthouse News Service)—Conservative political action committees scored a win in Illinois on Thursday, when an Obama-appointed federal judge in the Windy City struck down two of the state’s recently enacted judicial election reform laws.
The first reform, enacted by the Illinois General Assembly in November 2021, barred non-Illinois residents from donating to state judicial candidates. The second, enacted in May 2022, prevented individual donors from giving more than $500,000 to independent expenditure committees — like PACs — involved in state judicial elections.
Retired Illinois attorney John Matthew Chancey, alongside the conservative political action group Restoration PAC and its judicial election affiliate Fair Courts America, first sued the Illinois State Board of Elections in opposition to the reforms last August. The trio were represented in their suit by Liberty Justice Center, a conservative law firm.
Chancey, who now lives in Texas, claimed the 2021 reform violated his First Amendment rights by preventing him from donating to his former colleagues in Illinois who at the time sought election to various state judicial seats, including on the Illinois Supreme Court. Restoration similarly opposed the 2022 reform on First Amendment grounds because it prevented the PAC from accepting more than $500,000 from donors who wished to contribute more. It also prevented Restoration from contributing more than $500,000 to Fair Courts America.
“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. Here, the two restrictions on contributions in judicial races cannot meet this test,” Liberty Justice Center attorney Jeffrey Schwab wrote in the August complaint.
U.S. District Judge John Tharp at least partially agreed, ruling last October that the trio had shown “some likelihood of success on the merits, necessarily [they] have also demonstrated that they have stated a plausible claim for relief.”
In that ruling, Tharp noted that the pair of reforms applied only to the state’s judicial elections. The Illinois Election Code does not ban out-of-state donations to candidates in state legislative elections, for example, which Tharp said called the 2021 change into question.
“The State has failed to adequately explain at this stage how its complete prohibition of an entire source of money based solely on geography is a valid — i.e., closely drawn — method of protecting the public’s confidence in the integrity and independence of the state judiciary,” Tharp wrote in October.
Addressing the 2022 reform, Tharp also opined last fall that there already existed mechanisms for judicial candidates to accept more than $500,000 from individual donors, mooting the statute’s stated purpose.
“Illinois’ current framework … does virtually nothing to mitigate the threat posed by large donations to [independent expenditure committees],” Tharp wrote.
Per his opinions, Tharp temporarily enjoined the reforms in October, ensuring they would not take effect in the 2022 midterm elections. On Thursday, he cemented his 2022 decision by making the injunctions permanent. He wrote in his three-page order that the state elections board did not oppose the change.
Matthew Dietrich, the Illinois State Board of Election’s public information officer, confirmed that the board had chosen not to fight the injunctions. He added that the board “took no substantive position in the case,” and had no plans to appeal Tharp’s ruling.
“We will follow the court’s direction,” Dietrich said.
The office of Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, which was also named as a defendant in the suit, did not respond to a request for comment. But Schwab said in a Thursday evening phone call that Liberty Justice Center had reached a deal with Raoul’s office to ensure it didn’t oppose Tharp’s injunctions.
“This is an agreement with the Attorney General’s Office. They agreed not to oppose the injunctions,” Schwab said.
When asked what the Attorney General’s Office got out of this deal, Schwab responded that in exchange for its cooperation, Liberty Justice Center had agreed to not pursue costs in the case.
“What they got out of it is that they didn’t have to defend [against] the lawsuit anymore… We also agreed not to pursue costs and attorneys’ fees,” Schwab said.
In his October ruling, Tharp also denied Raoul’s motion to dismiss the conservative trio’s complaint for failure to state a claim.