Illinois House bill would close judicial elections loophole

Illinois House bill would close judicial elections loophole

A legal tactic intended to make it easier for Illinois judges to stay on the bench is under fire. An Illinois House bill aims to close the loophole, which four southwestern Illinois judges used in bids to dilute voters’ power.

Judges in southwestern Illinois pioneered a legal sidestep that allowed them to remain on the bench with fewer votes, but an Illinois House bill aims to end the practice.

House Bill 2047, introduced by state Rep. Charlie Meier, R-Okawville, provides that a judge or former judge may seek reelection only through retention. The Illinois Constitution calls for elected judges wanting another six-year term to seek retention, which requires 60 percent of voters to approve keeping a judge and removes political parties from the equation.

But in 2006 that intent was subverted when former St. Clair County Circuit Judge Lloyd Cueto resigned effective at the end of his elected term and ran again for election as a Democrat. He received 53 percent of the vote, which allowed him to remain on the bench when that percentage would have lost a retention bid otherwise.

Cueto’s tactic was never challenged, and three more St. Clair County judges tried the same thing in 2016. The move stirred protests and a complaint to the Illinois State Board of Elections.

Circuit Judges John Baricevic, Robert Haida and Robert LeChien decided against filing for retention, and instead resigned their posts in order to run as Democrats for the vacancies they created. Their resignations wouldn’t become effective until after the November 2016 general election, and given a successful reelection, would have been back on the bench a few days later.

The Illinois State Board of Elections, or ISBE, voted 4-4 in January 2016 following Belleville city clerk and Republican leader Dallas Cook’s complaint about the tactic, effectively allowing the three St. Clair County judges to go ahead with their bids. One ISBE hearing examiner argued there was no prohibition on the strategy. The decision to let them run was upheld by an appellate court.

Ultimately, Haida ran unopposed and LeChien narrowly won his seat. Even without the 60 percent vote threshold, Baricevic lost his bid. Baricevic’s loss was a significant rejection because he was a political leader who served as county prosecutor, then county board chairman and was the circuit court’s chief judge.

The Illinois Constitution provides that, “Judges seeking retention shall be submitted to the electors, separately and without party designation, on the sole question whether each Judge shall be retained in office for another term.”

To ensure that intent is followed and actively prohibit the resignation sidestep, HB 2047 mandates retention elections for all judges, unless they are seeking a new position on a higher or lower court, or they have not served as an elected or appointed judge in the preceding two years.

HB 2047 codifies what the Illinois Constitution, properly understood, requires. It ensures the credibility of the state judiciary. State lawmakers should take up this bill to promote judicial independence and end a practice that lets judges swindle the public out of votes.

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