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Illinois Supreme Court candidates talk gay marriage, political endorsements and campaign contributions

Candidates for a Cook County vacancy on the Illinois Supreme Court will not say exactly what they'd do if asked to rule on gay marriage. But they offered strong hints during a forum at Northwestern University Law School on Thursday night.

AUDIO: Listen to the full debate

(Getty/David McNew, file)
Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis holds a temporary appointment to the court and said it'd be inappropriate for her to say how she'd rule on gay marriage.

"You want judges who are fair, impartial, open-minded, and for that reason I am not going to comment," Theis said. "But it is true we have taken steps forward with the legislature passing the civil unions act."

Theis added that she had a role in changing some technical Supreme Court rules relating to civil unions.

Appellate Court Judge Joy Cunningham said she would not comment specifically on the issue, but left little doubt about her sympathies.

"I will say that I absolutely support equal rights on, you know, on all issues," Cunningham said. "And I also believe that it's important for us as a state and as a people to treat everybody equally, and that defines who we are not only as individuals but as [a] people."

Cunningham told the crowd she has performed civil union ceremonies. So did former Cook County Clerk of Court Aurelia Pucinski, now an appellate court judge, who said she's signed off on adoptions by gay couples.

"The law is evolving. It's evolving in the right direction," Pucinski said. "I think the life of families is changing, our definition is changing and we have to embrace that, welcome it, and be open to it."

Lawyer Thomas Flannigan said he thinks gay marriage will eventually become law, but he warned about making sure people who oppose it have rights.

Political issues

The candidates also debated the sticky issues of political party endorsements and campaign contributions for judges.

Theis, who is backed by the Cook County Democratic Party, said there is nothing wrong with a judge seeking a party endorsement.

"I'm trying to find as many people as I can to tell my story about my 28 years of service, and that includes elected officials," Theis said, adding that she has "very much respect" for Democrats because of the party's record on minorities' rights.

"But I don't come as a partisan person," she said. "I'm a judge."

Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis (left) was appointed to the court in late 2010. (WBEZ/Sam Hudzik)

Pucinski said she believed political parties should stay out of elections for judges.

"We are not only supposed to be non-partisan, we're required to be non-partisan," Pucinski said. "We're not supposed to have a partisan platform."

While several of the candidates talked of possible reforms to the funding of judicial elections, Flannigan, a self-described long shot, went the farthest. He said he's swearing-off campaign contributions.

"Puts me at a certain disadvantage," he said. "But that's how I'm going to do it."

The winner of the March 20th Democratic primary faces Judge James Riley, a Republican, in November.

The Supreme Court vacancy was created in the fall of 2010, when then-Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald announced his retirement.

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