Using Ballot to Put Judges on Bench Leads to Host of Difficulties

Article excerpt

Byline: John Zimmerman

There are some judges in the DuPage County courthouse who, if they enjoy a good lawyer joke, aren't cracking one now.

That is because they need those attorneys' help in getting elected. Their financial help.

Thousands of dollars in contributions from lawyers are being poured into campaigns of the four judges seeking to be elected to the circuit court - Circuit Court Judge Stan Austin and associate judges Mark Dwyer, Patrick Leston and Kenneth Popejoy.

The one non-sitting judge in this campaign, attorney Richard Russo, also is accepting money from lawyers.

Now the most cynical observer of the political scene will say these judges - and Russo - will, if elected, certainly compromise their judicial independence when lawyers who gave them cash appear before them.

I don't think so. The four judges have fine reputations in a DuPage County judiciary system that overall earns high marks. And in our editorial board interviews, all the judges came off as honest, bright and objective managers of the courts and interpreters of the law. Russo, too, didn't present himself as someone who will compromise himself.

In fact, they all are, in their own way, uncomfortable with a system that all but forces them to accept campaign contributions from lawyers who have money and are within their occupational and social circles. The only way they can get the job they want is to be elected to it. And that takes money.

They aren't the only ones who are squeamish. Mary Schaafsma, director of judicial reform for the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a nonpartisan public interest group, says if political contributions to judges don't create actual conflicts of interest, they certainly can give the appearance of such.

"That's frankly our concern," Schaafsma said.

What leaps to mind immediately as an alternative to electing judges is merit selection. It's a concept I like. But I know it also is hard to sell because you have to answer the obvious question - who decides merit in a way that there is no question of political influence? …