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Remove politics, cash from judicial selection

Adopting a nonpartisan method of selecting Illinois Supreme Court justices would help the state rehabilitate its tarnished reputation and increase public confidence in the judiciary. Let’s do it.

Published: Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT

It is no surprise that Illinois’ public pension reform law, approved by the General Assembly last month and signed by Gov. Pat Quinn, has been challenged in court.

Several lawsuits have been filed that dispute cuts made to retiree benefits. Those changes are supposed to help reduce the estimated $100 billion debt owed by the state to the pension system.

Illinois’ seven Supreme Court justices may eventually be called upon to rule on the constitutionality of pension reform.

It should also be no surprise that their political backgrounds are brought to the foreground in this politically charged case.

On one side are House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat and chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party, who claimed personal credit for the approval of pension reform, plus business groups that pushed for reform.

On the other side are public employee unions and people who receive pensions, who oppose changes to the benefits they worked years to receive.

It turns out, according to a Chicago Sun-Times story that was disseminated statewide by the Associated Press, that six of the seven current Supreme Court justices had accepted a combined total of nearly $3 million during the past 13 years from business groups, labor unions, and a political committee controlled by Madigan, who all have a stake in pension reform.

And the justices are expected to rule impartially on the issue?

David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, gave his assessment on the matter.

“Even the most honorable justice has to acknowledge this looks bad. It puts them in a bad light,” Yepsen said.

Yes, it looks bad, even in Illinois, a state notorious for political corruption.

However, we don’t blame the judges: Democrats Charles Freeman, Thomas Kilbride, Mary Jane Theis and Ann Burke, and Republicans Robert Thomas, Lloyd Karmeier and Rita Garman.

We blame the system.

In Illinois, Supreme Court justices are chosen in partisan political elections. After 10 years, a justice must run in a retention election. While committees, not the judicial candidates themselves, raise and spend the campaign money, winning judges have a hard time washing away the taint of politics and the cash they accepted from special interest groups.

And that “D” or “R” next to their names will always be taken into account by those who disagree with their rulings.

The perception of favoritism could be greatly reduced if Illinois would reform its judicial selection process.

In some states, the governor appoints supreme court justices. Nominating commissions are used in other states. State senates have the power to confirm choices in some states.

And some states use nonpartisan elections to choose supreme court justices.

Various attempts to reduce partisanship in the selection of judges have been made since the 1970 Illinois Constitution took effect, but with no success.

No perfect system exists for judicial selection, but removing political labels and the need for expensive political campaigns would be a good start.

Adopting a nonpartisan method of selecting Supreme Court justices would help Illinois rehabilitate its tarnished reputation and increase public confidence in the judiciary.

Let’s do it.

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