Why You Should Care about Judicial Elections

Article excerpt

Byline: Christy Gutowski Daily Herald Legal Affairs Writer

They may decide if you get to keep your kids in a custody battle, the price you'll pay for having a lead foot or your fate in a lawsuit.

Yet, judicial elections, which bestow such powers on a select few, often receive little voter attention. An estimated 25 percent of voters who cast a ballot typically don't bother to weigh in on circuit contests, election officials estimate.

"This is a very important decision," said Kevin Millon, president of the DuPage County Bar Association. "They're the ones who are the most likely to directly affect your life."

Five Republican candidates seeking an open seat on the DuPage County circuit bench are hoping their feverish campaigning - most if not all are spending more than $100,000 - has sparked an interest in Tuesday's primary election.

The men - four respected judges and a veteran trial attorney - are vying to fill the seat former Circuit Judge Ronald Mehling vacated when he retired in summer 2002.

DuPage Circuit Judge Stan Austin, appointed to Mehling's seat, faces competition from associate judges Mark Dwyer, Patrick Leston and Kenneth Popejoy. The fifth candidate, Richard Russo, a defense attorney, is a former Chicago police officer and prosecutor.

The circuit job pays $136,546 a year, nearly $10,000 more than what the associates are making, and offers more in terms of power and prestige.

Circuit judges shape the judiciary by voting on future associate candidates and participating in policy decisions. Those on the circuit bench also have more of a say in their courtroom assignments.

The four judges come "recommended" by the Illinois State Bar Association. Russo did not participate. So, in a pool of qualified candidates, the men are trying to set themselves apart.

They used multiple direct mailings, newspaper ads, phone banks, signs and lots of handshaking to bolster their name recognition.

Austin, 51, of Wheaton, with 12 years of judicial experience, has worn a robe the longest. Before that, he had worked in private practice since 1979. The presiding judge of domestic relations is quick to note he's had the benefit of 1 1/2 years on the job since the Illinois Supreme Court appointed him.

"I think that's certainly something that sets me apart," he said.

Russo is expected to spend more than $150,000 to convince voters a change is needed.

The 51-year-old Wheaton man argues the process of becoming a DuPage County judge is too political, which often discourages qualified candidates from running.

The 26-year lawyer advocates more citizen participation in the selection process, night hours in the four traffic field courts and has suggested an idea or two to expedite cases.

"Justice delayed is justice denied," he said.

Dwyer, 53, of Elmhurst, is celebrating his 10th anniversary as an associate judge. The U.S. Supreme Court gave him an early present in upholding Dwyer's decision backing the constitutionality of a police roadblock in a Lombard drunken driving arrest. …