Anne Burke named chief justice of Illinois Supreme Court while husband faces corruption charges

Anne Burke named chief justice of Illinois Supreme Court while husband faces corruption charges

The Illinois Supreme Court elected Anne Burke chief justice as Ald. Ed Burke faces a 14-count indictment on federal corruption charges.

As Chicago’s longest serving alderman faces prison time, his spouse will become the state’s most powerful judge.

The state’s high court justices on Sept. 10 elected Justice Anne Burke to chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, succeeding former Chief Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier.

The Supreme Court’s chief justice superintends all courts in the state and chairs the 29-member Illinois Judicial Conference, the duties of which are to “consider the work of the courts” and propose improvements to the courts and to “the administration of justice.” The role of chief justice also holds sole authority to permit or decline non-judges access to books in the Supreme Court library.

Burke’s rise to chief justice comes while her husband, 14th Ward Ald. Ed Burke, faces a 14-count indictment on federal corruption charges. In January, federal prosecutors accused the alderman of attempting to extort the owners of a Burger King franchise in his ward by withholding a remodeling permit in order to pressure them to hire his private law firm to handle their property tax appeals.

Ald. Burke stepped down from his private law practice in August, after City Council voted unanimously to approve Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s ethics reform package, which included stricter restrictions on local leaders engaging in conflicts of interest.

Illinoisans vote for Supreme Court justices on partisan ballots, electing them to a 10-year term, while casting a simple “yes” or “no” vote for justices’ subsequent re-election bids. Sitting Illinois Supreme Court justices then elect the chief to three-year terms.

While partisan judicial elections are not uncommon in the U.S., their potential for corruption and politicization of the courts is well documented. The nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice in a 2018 report found states could address this problem by instead instituting a “transparent, publicly accountable” system for appointing justices, among other reforms. A previous study from the Center ranked Illinois fourth in the nation for total spending on state Supreme Court races between 2013 and 2014 – despite only one seat being up for election during that time. The other states in the top four had at least three.

Justice Anne Burke saddled the Illinois Supreme Court with Chicago’s political baggage in January 2018 when she and Ed Burke held a fundraiser at their home in support of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s unsuccessful mayoral bid. Ald. Ed Burke’s extortion charge the following year involved the allegation that he coerced the Burger King franchise owners to contribute to Preckwinkle’s campaign, pressuring the then-candidate to distance herself from the alderman and return the $116,000 raised at the event.

In January 2019, Preckwinkle told the Chicago Tribune that it was Anne Burke – not her husband – who arranged the fundraiser, despite Ed Burke’s name appearing on the event invitation. But the Illinois Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits judges from endorsing or raising funds for political candidates. Political consultant Jeffrey Orr – the son of former Cook County Clerk David Orr – filed a complaint against Anne Burke alleging judicial misconduct. The Illinois Judiciary Inquiry Board in April cleared Burke of any wrongdoing without explanation.

Preckwinkle hired the Burkes’ son in 2014 to a county position that earned him an annual salary of nearly $100,000.

In another intersection of the Burkes’ political ties, Anne Burke wrote the unanimous opinion defending Chicago’s burdensome food truck regulations, which Ald. Ed Burke approved as a member of City Council.

Some of the Illinois Supreme Court’s most significant and controversial decisions in recent years have involved its strict interpretation of the Illinois Constitution’s pension protection clause.

In April, Burke wrote the majority opinion in a decision awarding a former union employee eligibility to receive a decade’s worth of teacher pension benefits despite only having worked a single day in the classroom as a substitute teacher.

In 2015, the Illinois Supreme Court struck down the Illinois General Assembly’s landmark pension reform law signed by former Gov. Pat Quinn. The court ruled public pension benefits unchangeable under the contract in effect at the start of a worker’s employment – including future benefits that workers have not yet earned. The opinion cited Section 5 of Article XIII in the state constitution, which states that public pension benefits “shall not be diminished or impaired.”

In November 2018, the court ruled unanimously that the state constitution’s pension clause allows select government employees to inflate their post-retirement pay.

In fiscal year 2020, the state’s pension contributions and related costs will consume more than 25% of all state general revenues at $10.2 billion. The extreme rise in Illinois’ pension costs has led to funding cuts to core services for Illinois’ most vulnerable residents at the state and local levels. Pension costs are also the main driver of Illinois homeowners’ rising property tax bills, which stand among the highest in the nation.

The Illinois Supreme Court’s rejection of even the most modest pension reforms only underscores the need for a constitutional amendment and comprehensive pension reform in Illinois.

Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke will be the state’s 121st chief justice. Her three-year term begins Oct. 26.

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