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Illinois Supreme Court election: Does anybody even know it's on the ballot?

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Former Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald (right) retired in the 2010, leading to this year's election. (AP/Seth Perlman)

Voters in Cook County this year will elect an Illinois Supreme Court justice. But with just over a month before the primary election, it’s getting little notice.

EXTRA: WBEZ host Steve Edwards talked with reporter Sam Hudzik about this election. Edwards also interviewed Albert Klumpp, a research analyst at the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery. Klumpp has researched judicial primary elections in Cook County, and wrote his doctoral dissertation on retention elections. Listen below:

Three of the seven spots on the court are reserved for Cook County, with one of the seats on the March 20 ballot. The Democratic Party contest includes Justice Mary Jane Theis, who holds the seat by temporary appointment, along with two state appeals court judges, one of whom has a very familiar name.

Chances are you’re like a lot of voters: If you got stopped on the street by a pushy guy with a microphone, you’d have a hard time naming the justices on the Illinois Supreme Court.

“I’m a lawyer, I couldn’t name all the Supreme Court justices to be honest with you. Yeah, I doubt most people can,” Jeremiah Posedel of Chicago said last week, standing in the underground tunnel near Chicago’s Millennium Station.

“No, I don’t think I do [know of any justices],” said Laura Kracke of Hyde Park. “Unless, what? Anne [Burke]?”

“Oh, yeah, [I can name them]: Kennedy, Breyer,” answered Eleanor Truex of Homewood, making a commom mistake. “Oh, Illinois? No idea. Sorry.”

So, it’s no big surprise that a lot of Cook County voters are unaware they’ll be asked to pick a state Supreme Court justice this year. The one guy I talked to who did know that election was coming couldn’t name any of the candidates.

There’s no judgment here. Reporters - myself included - normally provide relatively sparse coverage of judicial campaigns. But these elections couldn’t be more significant.

Illinois Supreme Court justices last summer upheld the constitutionality of a major infrastructure plan funded by video gambling and a host of new taxes. Earlier this month, the court said criminal confessions obtained through torture cannot be used at trial. The justices are currently considering Cook County’s assault weapons ban and parental notification for abortions.

“The Supreme Court of the United States gets all the publicity and applause or condemnation,” said Thomas Sullivann, former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. “But the Supreme Court of Illinois hears far more cases and deals with a far greater variety of subjects - just an incredible number of different areas of law.”

Partisan judges

Sullivan was the opening speaker at a recent forum for Supreme Court candidates held recently at Northwestern University Law School.

Candidates for judge are not allowed to publicly say how they’d rule on any issue and for the most part these candidates followed that. So perhaps the most touchy and telling moment of the night came when the candidates talked about whether political parties should be involved in judicial elections.

A judge for nearly 30 years, Mary Jane Theis was appointed to the Supreme Court to fill the vacancy created by Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald’s retirement. That was October of 2010.

A year later, when Democratic officials gathered to endorse a candidate for that seat, they gave the nod to Theis, backed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former Mayor Richard Daley.

“This is a Democratic primary, and so certainly it would be helpful to engage in a discussion of what the Democratic Party means,” Theis said at the Northwestern forum, defending her decision to seek the endorsement, and defending the party. “History has shown that - specifically for minorities - [the] Democratic Party has been a champion of their rights, and for those reasons I have very much respect for them. But I don’t come as a partisan person. I am a judge.”

“The Democratic Party in all likelihood, in all reality, has a very tight hold on who gets elected to the bench in Cook County,” said appellate court Judge Joy Cunningham, another candidate for Supreme Court.

Cunningham has the backing of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. If elected, she would become the first black woman to serve on the state’s high court. Cunningham tried to get the party’s support, but said she didn’t expect it.

“It is my understanding that sometimes deals are made before the slating process even takes place,” Cunningham said. “However, I felt that it was as a part of the process I felt that it was important to present my credentials in an open forum so that everyone within earshot could hear what my credentials are and give the party an opportunity to do the right thing.”

Impartiality or hypocrisy?

Supreme Court hopeful Aurelia Pucinski took a different tactic with the Democratic Party.

Pucinski served as Cook County Circuit Court Clerk for 12 years and as a judge since 2004. Her dad is the late congressman and Chicago alderman Roman Pucinski. Despite those Democratic roots, Pucinski said party endorsements for judicial candidates are a bad thing because judges are supposed to be nonpartisan.

“I have taken the stand that while we should be elected - because it forces judges to get out of their ivory tower - and talking to real people and answering real questions, which is good, that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans should endorse,” Pucinski said at Northwestern.

That is the exact same message Pucinski told Cook County Democrats - to their face - when she went to the endorsement meeting in October.

But it’s a hypocritical message, argued the chair of the party, county Assessor Joe Berrios. Berrios notes that Pucinski in the past has asked to be slated when she’s run for judge.

"[This year] she knew that she didn’t have enough votes in the room to get the slating, so she made the comment that there shouldn’t be a slating, and that the Democratic Party, committeemen should stay out of this election,” Berrios said in a phone interview last week.

There are a couple parts of “Aurie” Pucinski’s biography that make it clear she was not going to win the party’s support.

Case number 1: In 1998, she ran for Cook County Board President - as a Republican. She lost. Two: She’s run against the party’s endorsed candidate in judge elections before, including two years ago when she won a seat on the state appellate court.

“That’s one thing that Aurie has done before. She’s run against the party, and you know she’s beat the party,” Berrios said. “But we are working very hard for our endorsed candidate, Mary Jane Theis, and we will continue to do that.”

But Pucinski begins the campaign with one big advantage: name recognition.

“I recognize her name, yes,” Laura Kracke, of Hyde Park, said.

“Yes. Yes, because that’s such an unusual name,” said Eleanor Truex, of Homewood.

Bar associations

These voters said they’ll do research before the election. Part of that could be looking at ratings from bar associations.

The Chicago Council of Lawyers last week finalized its ratings, finding Theis to be “highly qualified.” Lawyers noted her “outstanding legal ability,” scholarly writings and “unquestioned” integrity.

Cunningham was rated “well qualified” to serve on the Illinois Supreme Court. Council members called her a “solid, hard working jurist” who “asks good questions...and writes well-reasoned opinions.”

The council had less praise for the two other Democrats, which it rated “not qualified.” Pucinski was knocked for “play[ing] an advocacy role” from the bench, and lawyer Thomas Flannigan (a self-described “longshot”) was found to lack the broad legal experience necessary to serve on the state’s highest court.

Ratings from other lawyer groups, including the Chicago Bar Association, are not yet available.

TV ads and money

Expect Theis and Cunningham to mention their ratings in upcoming TV ads. And while Theis’ ads may not end up highlighting her Democratic Party support, the campaign says it will highlight another big endorsement: Mayor Emanuel’s.

And she will have plenty of cash to buy ads. Theis’ campaign reported having $609,339 at the end of December and has raised at least $21,800 since then, according to filings with the Illinois State Election Board. (see Theis’ filings)

Cunningham reported $139,330 at the end of the year, raising more than $43,500 so far in 2012. (see Cunningham’s filings)

Pucinski had under $300 (see her filings). Flannigan, who has publicly sworn off donations, has no open campaign committee.

The sole GOPer

Next November, the winner of the Democratic primary will face Judge James Riley, who was rated “not qualified” by the Chicago Council of Lawyers. Riley is running a spirited though probably futile campaign for this Cook County seat, as a Republican.

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