‘It’s About One-Party Rule’: Why Illinois Supreme Court Justice Tom Kilbride Is In The Fight Of His Career

Justice Tom Kilbride
In this Sept. 10, 2013 file photo, Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas L. Kilbride listens to oral arguments at the Michael A. Bilandic Building in Chicago. Kilbride is up for retention in November. M. Spencer Green, File / Associated Press
Justice Tom Kilbride
In this Sept. 10, 2013 file photo, Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas L. Kilbride listens to oral arguments at the Michael A. Bilandic Building in Chicago. Kilbride is up for retention in November. M. Spencer Green, File / Associated Press

‘It’s About One-Party Rule’: Why Illinois Supreme Court Justice Tom Kilbride Is In The Fight Of His Career

The refashioned home of the Chicago Bears owes its architecturally maligned existence to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Justice Tom Kilbride wrote the lead opinion in a 2003 case that stymied a Friends of the Parks effort to block a massive state-backed facelift of Soldier Field, enabling what critics derided as a UFO-in-a-saucer look that the justice today admits he doesn’t like.

“It looks like a spaceship landed,” Kilbride said in a recent interview. “I’m kind of fond of historic buildings, and I don’t know the whole history … in terms of Soldier Field. But aesthetically, it doesn’t, at least to my eye, really match up with the way I think the place should be maintained.”

That case is one of thousands that the longest-tenured member of the state high court has participated in since becoming one of Illinois’ most powerful judges two decades ago. Now, that long record is facing intense new scrutiny as Kilbride faces the fight of his judicial life.

He’s on the Nov. 3 ballot in Will County and a swath of north-central Illinois stretching from Rock Island through Peoria through Joliet, where voters in 21 counties will decide whether he should get another 10-year term on the state Supreme Court.

It’s a referendum not only on Kilbride’s deeply textured legal career but also on his relationship with the politically toxic Illinois House speaker, Michael Madigan, a key former financial backer dubbed unflatteringly as “Public Official A” in a massive federal investigation into Springfield lobbying.

And, the outcome of Kilbride’s down-ballot retention campaign carries surprisingly large political stakes. A loss could open a once-in-a-lifetime pathway for Republicans to retake control of the court for the first time in more than a half century.

Kilbride, 67, of Rock Island, is part of the court’s 4-3 Democratic majority and has left his mark on a series of precedent-setting disputes — from legislative redistricting to state pension protections to prohibitions on child sex offenders entering public parks and even Soldier Field.

Backed for retention by the non-partisan Illinois State Bar Association, Kilbride has been a driving force in getting cameras installed in courtrooms, has expanded the legal process for low-income users of the courts and has advocated beefed-up funding for probationary services.

“I would like to continue to be on the court to represent all the people within the 3rd District,” Kilbride said, citing his judicial district, “and I think I’ve done that in a fair way that sets a level playing field for people to get their shot at justice.”

Democratic rule amid shifting political leanings

Kilbride’s party has held unfettered control over the Illinois Supreme Court since 1969. That is an often-overlooked streak of political endurance in Springfield that usurps even the record-setting run of Madigan, who has held his chamber’s gavel for 35 out of the last 37 years.

Unlike at the federal level, where Supreme Court justices are appointed by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Illinois justices have to go before voters to land or keep seats on the court.

Judicial retention campaigns like Kilbride’s always have favored incumbent Illinois justices — 19 times, in fact, since 1970. The closest retention race in state history came in 2014, when downstate Republican Justice Lloyd Karmeier, who is retiring from the court in December, was allowed to remain on the court for another decade by a winning margin of less than a single percentage point.

Kilbride’s retention battle next month has potential to be a nailbiter, as well.

“This is as important a race as any race in Illinois this year, including the U.S. Senate race, including congressional races, because there’s an opportunity for Republicans to have a shot at controlling the [state] Supreme Court,” said Ray LaHood, the former Obama administration transportation secretary and GOP congressman from Peoria, who is pushing for Kilbride’s ouster.

“It’s about one-party rule not only of the legislature but of the Supreme Court,” LaHood said. “We have to end that in Illinois if we’re ever going to get around to solving our problems.”

To win retention, Kilbride has to receive at least 60% of the vote. But he has the daunting task of being a Democrat in an increasingly Republican-favoring judicial district. In 2016, Republican Donald Trump won 18 out of the district’s 21 counties, defeating Democrat Hillary Clinton by a 48 to 43% spread.

If Kilbride fails to meet that 60% threshold, his term would end in early December. He says it’s possible, under such a scenario, that he could have a hand in choosing a successor who would serve until 2022, when a new election would be held for a seat Republicans believe they could win.

For a chance at regaining control of the court, Republicans also would have to maintain Karmeier’s seat on the court this year and, in 2022, the seat of Justice Michael J. Burke, who was appointed earlier this year to fill out the term of former Justice Bob Thomas, a Republican.

Kilbride’s ascent

Kilbride grew up in Kankakee and bounced around to a series of northern Illinois communities as a child of an insurance company adjuster, whose job kept moving. Kilbride eventually settled on a legal career, spending roughly 20 years handling everything from divorce cases to car repossessions to adoptions to zoning matters.

“My father always told me to never forget my common sense,” Kilbride said. “That’s not a legal philosophy in and of itself, but it’s an approach that I try and keep in mind in all cases. I hate to even call it a philosophy because it sounds a little too high falutin for me, but it’s approaching it in a way so we never lose sight of how these cases impact people.”

Kilbride’s ascent to the state Supreme Court in 2000 was aided by the exit of Republican Justice James Heiple, who survived a 1997 Illinois House impeachment inquiry over his attempts to duck traffic tickets. Stung by the legislative move against him, Heiple decided against seeking another term, opening the door for Kilbride, who had never been a judge.

Until Kilbride came along, the judicial district had been a Republican stronghold since 1948, said John Lupton, historian for the state Supreme Court and director of the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission.

Ultimately, despite that history and Trump’s seemingly unflinching support in his district, Kilbride thinks he can win backing from across party lines.

“I am not a guy who crunches these numbers. I’m welcoming everybody to support my campaign, and I’ve got solid Republican support across the board who may well vote for Trump,” Kilbride said. “That’s not a question that I’m concerned with.”

One advantage Kilbride has is his party designation won’t appear on ballots so voters won’t be reminded he’s a Democrat. During their first elections, justices’ parties are made clear to voters on the ballot, but the state constitution dictates that their parties are not to be on ballots for retention elections.

More broadly, Kilbride believes the state’s judiciary shouldn’t be politicized.

“We’re not electing judges to wear blue robes or red robes. You’ve got to wear black robes. You’ve got to be impartial,” he said, “and that’s the way it is.”

Kilbride has lined up support from an impressive array of top Republicans in Illinois’ legal world, including two former GOP chief justices of the court, Ben Miller and Bob Thomas; former House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego; and ex-U.S. attorneys Dan Webb and Anton Valukas. Before his death, former four-term Republican Gov. James Thompson also endorsed Kilbride’s retention.

Webb, the co-chairman of the Winston & Strawn law firm, has practiced frequently before the state Supreme Court and praised Kilbride’s penchant for fairness.

“I know, from experience, that my clients have always received that from Justice Kilbride and his colleagues on the Supreme Court of Illinois,” Webb said.

The challenge of Madigan ties

But Kilbride is facing a well-financed effort to drive him from office. Billionaire Chicago hedge fund operator Kenneth Griffin has poured $2 million into a political committee seeking to defeat Kilbride. Another GOP megadonor involved in the campaign is Lake Forest shipping supply magnate Richard Uihlein, who has put $500,000 into the anti-Kilbride cause.

Kilbride’s opponents are trying to drag him down over his past association with Madigan, whom federal prosecutors repeatedly labeled as “Public Official A” in a $200 million settlement with Commonwealth Edison to end a criminal bribery probe into the utiilty’s Springfield lobbying.

Madigan associates were alleged to have received $1.3 million in payments and no-work contracts from the utility as part of an effort to influence the speaker and move along its state legislative agenda. Madigan has not been charged and has denied wrongdoing.

The speaker was chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois when it funded Kilbride’s initial 2000 run for the court and his 2010 retention to the tune of more than $2.1 million, state campaign records show.

On Oct. 2, Kilbride told WBEZ he would not accept any funding from any Madigan-led political funds.

“We’re not going to accept one penny — and I say this respectfully — [from] Speaker Madigan or any of his entities,” Kilbride said then.

But Tuesday evening, the Democratic Party of Illinois, which Madigan chairs, reported that it dropped $550,000 into Kilbride’s campaign coffers.

Kilbride campaign spokesman Ryan McLaughlin on Wednesday said the justice was unaware of the state Democratic Party contribution because he’s made it a practice to not be involved in his campaign finances.

But Kilbride’s critics say the ties to Madigan remain.

“The speaker fully funded his last retention campaign. And that connection has got to be damaging, given scrutiny that the speaker’s under,” said Senate Minority Leader Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, who favors the justice’s removal.

But earlier this month, Kilbride characterized his relationship with Madigan as only a distant one, mostly limited to encounters at official functions.

“It’s all very friendly conversation. And the only thing I’ve ever talked to him about is baseball and Notre Dame football and health, staying healthy,” Kilbride said. “I’ve never discussed a case with him. He’s never asked me about a case. No one on his behalf has ever inquired about a case.”

Court decisions under scrutiny

Opponents also point to Kilbride’s 2016 authorship of the court opinion that struck down a citizen-led ballot initiative to change how Illinois draws legislative and congressional districts. Redistricting is a once-a-decade process that has been a crucial underpinning of Madigan’s enduring power, particularly during the past two decades.

More than 570,000 Illinoisans signed petitions in support of taking redistricting out of the hands of legislators like Madigan.

But immediately after those petitions were filed with the state, a group of politically-connected plaintiffs challenged the redistricting plan. Among the plaintiffs were one of ComEd’s top lobbyists at the time, John Hooker, and the company’s former president and CEO, Frank Clark. A lawyer involved in the case also seeking to kill the redistricting amendment was Michael Kasper, treasurer of the Madigan-led Democratic Party of Illinois.

The legal challenge quickly shot to the state Supreme Court. And by a 4-3 partisan roll call, it was deemed unconstitutional and never went before voters in November 2016. Kilbride wrote the court’s majority opinion in that case, ranking as perhaps his most significant act on the bench.

In the opinion, Kilbride latched onto a technical legal argument opponents were presenting to stop the ballot initiative dead in its tracks.

The pushback from Republican justices to Kilbride’s opinion was as fury-filled as any dissent in memory.

“Today a muzzle has been placed on the people of this state, and their voices supplanted with judicial fiat,” wrote Justice Bob Thomas. “The whimper you hear is democracy stifled.”

Today, LaHood said that act alone is what is driving him to seek Kilbride’s ouster.

“To throw those petitions off the ballot, that was kind of it for me,” LaHood said. “He’s thumbed his nose at common, ordinary citizens that circulated those petitions. Six hundred thousand were just thrown asunder.”

Kilbride said he personally believes legislative and congressional mapmaking would become a better process if “we could take all the personalities and all the people out of the process to have as neutral a system as we could come up with” — perhaps something akin to the non-partisan, computer-generated system Iowa has.

But that was an option that wasn’t before him, Kilbride said.

Unlikely backing

Now, with his judicial career on the line, one of Kilbride’s biggest cheerleaders is possibly the unlikeliest.

His former court colleague who wrote the blistering dissent in the redistricting case, Justice Thomas, said Kilbride is more than deserving of another 10 years on the court. Thomas is a Republican.

“I think that myself and the colleagues that were on the dissenting side of that case were right. I still think that’s the case. But I can’t say that based on that case or any other cases where we were on separate sides of the issue, that that disqualifies him for retention,” Thomas said in an interview.

“I think I have to base my endorsement on the fact that I think he’s conscientious, does a good job, works hard and doesn’t always agree with me. And because he doesn’t always agree with me, that’s not a reason not to retain him.”

Thomas recused himself from the Soldier Field case that represented Kilbride’s earliest, high-profile case on the court. After all, Thomas was a placekicker for the Bears for nine years.

But all these years later, that particular opinion still sticks in the craw of the Friends of the Parks group, which had waged a legal battle against the Bears and Chicago Park District in a failed bid to safeguard the 96-year-old stadium’s historic features.

“It’s an atrocity in an architectural sense and visual sense. I go by it so many times every year, and it breaks my heart,” said the group’s board member Fred Bates, who said he often thinks about Kilbride when he passes the stadium. “I have to shake my head because it’s a reminder of the power of our courts, and judges should be really cognizant and understanding of just what impact their decisions will have.”

Kilbride said there is no room in any case for him to inject his personal opinion and that he’s bound to stay inside the “four walls of the legal case.”

But from his early days as a lawyer, Kilbride said he also recognizes the power of his robe.

“What happens to people in court, I’ve seen that,” he said. “I’ve seen it in real ways.”