Duking it out for an Illinois Supreme Court seat

March 8, 2012

By the end of the evening, one candidate had accused another of trading a court ruling for political support, and the power went out.

WATCH THE DEBATE: WTTW's website
ELECTION GUIDE: How to pick judges

The four Democrats running for the Cook County vacancy on the Illinois Supreme Court gathered Tuesday evening on Chicago's Northwest Side in the studios of WTTW public television. Early on, these high court hopefuls argued about lawyers.

Bar association ratings

Justice Mary Jane Theis holds the seat by temporary appointment. Along with Appellate Judge Joy Cunningham, Theis got positive ratings from all the major lawyer groups.

"Bar associations do very in-depth investigations of each of us," Theis said. "We had to give about 50 names of people that they were going to contact and find out who we are."

A third Supreme Court candidate, Appellate Judge Aurelia Pucinski, received far fewer positive ratings. She shrugged that off with sarcasm.

"What a great idea - let's let lawyers decide who they like," Pucinski said. "I do not think that the bar ratings are the be-all and end-all of this campaign. I think that citizens look at me, and they say they know what they get. They know they get effective, efficient, competent, honest leadership in this community."

Just one of the bar associations gave a thumbs up to the fourth Democrat in the race, lawyer Thomas Flannigan.

Mayor Emanuel's cameo

Like all the justices on the court in the winter of 2011, Theis ruled that Rahm Emanuel was eligible to run for Chicago mayor.

In the debate Tuesday, Cunningham all but said that Theis should've recused herself because she lives on Emanuel's block.

"I think only Judge Theis could make this decision, but I think it's very important that everything a judge does has an appearance of being absolutely proper and above reproach," said Cunningham, a point she repeated at least three times.

Pucinski went much farther, even implying that Theis was part of some quid pro quo.

"A few months later we skip forward to Mayor Emanuel's strong endorsement of my colleague. And all of the money he's raised and all of the money his campaign has raised for her and all of the city contractors and city lawyers that're contributing to her campaign," Pucinski said, before refusing to directly answer a moderator's question of whether she believed that was "a payback."

Theis defended her decision, noting that she barely knew Emanuel before he became mayor.

"The fact that one of the litigants in the case lives in the same area that I lived, I really don't think that the people of the city of Chicago would question my integrity - the fact that I participated in that case," Theis said.

Lights out

The comments about Emanuel came during a "web only" section of the debate, which did not air on WTTW.

Partway into that segment, the lights went out across the station, including in the broadcast studio where the candidates were being taped (check out photos on the Chicago Tonight website). The debate resumed about 20 minutes later.

Handicapping the race

Researcher Albert Klumpp has compiled data on judicial primary elections in Cook County going back to 1976. Klumpp said the numbers show that some candidates begin with a clear advantage.

"Plenty of voters will respond simply to a familiar political name - not knowing the first thing about the person as a judicial candidate, but just because they know the name," Klumpp said.

That would seem to favor one Supreme Court candidate, Pucinski. The former Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court is daughter of the late Roman Pucinski, a congressman and alderman.

On name recognition alone, Klumpp calculated a roughly 20-percentage point bump for Pucinski when she ran for appellate court in 2010.

Still, Klumpp notes other things working against Pucinski this year: her sub-par bar association ratings, no party or newspaper support and little campaign money.

Each of those factors favor Theis, who's been endorsed by the Cook County Democratic Party and both the Tribune and Daily Herald. Theis has also raised at least twice as much as the runner-up in campaign financing, Cunningham.

"[Theis] has, you know, strong selling points as far as getting big endorsements and getting the highest set of ratings from the major bar groups," Klumpp said. "So, if she can take that spending advantage that she has, and just leverage it into even two or three percentage points of the vote, that could be the difference-maker if this is as close a contest as this probably will be."

Looking to November

The winner of the Democratic primary will be up against Judge James Riley in the general election. Riley is running unopposed in the Republican primary, but faces long odds in November.

"I've been digging into this and going back through history, and the last time that any Republican defeated a Democrat for a county-wide judicial vacancy at any level was 1966, and the last time it happened for Supreme Court was 1924," Klumpp said.