Pritzker bans outside donors ahead of Illinois Supreme Court races

Pritzker bans outside donors ahead of Illinois Supreme Court races

Gov. J.B. Pritzker banned ‘dark money’ in Illinois’ judicial elections after record spending unseated a longtime Madigan ally from the Illinois Supreme Court. Voters will decide more high court vacancies soon.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed new legislation in November that bans Illinois judicial candidates from receiving campaign cash from out-of-state contributors and groups with donor privacy policies.

The law targeting so-called “dark money” groups preempts a fierce 2022 election cycle that will see four judicial seats up for consideration and ultimately determine the balance of power on the Illinois’ Supreme Court in the coming decade.

It also arrives in the wake of a record-breaking 2020 retention election that saw Republican donors and business interests unseat Democratic Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride. The retention referendum was the most expensive in U.S. history and marks the first time Illinois voters have unseated a justice since retention elections were adopted in 1964.

The seven-member high court currently maintains a 4-3 Democratic majority, giving the party dominance over all three branches of Illinois government. Democrats have held an unbroken majority on the court for the past 52 years.

Edwardsville Democrat and sponsor of the legislation, state Rep. Katie Stuart, said the policy “would stop out-of-state and untraceable money from finding its way into our judicial races to maintain the integrity of those judicial elections.”

But Republicans said the Democrats’ policy aims to strengthen the majority’s grip on the court after Kilbride’s surprise defeat.

“This is another effort for the majority to change the rules of the game because they don’t like the outcome,” GOP Rep. Ryan Spain of Peoria said on the House floor.

A lead campaign finance expert said regardless of lawmakers’ intentions, the law will likely do little to stem the flood of cash from powerful interests trying to influence the state’s highest court.

“This is basically feel-good, virtue signaling kind of legislation,” said Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. He said the law targeting individual candidates’ campaign funds does nothing to stop independent expenditure committees, which can raise and spend unlimited sums as long as they do not coordinate with candidates or their campaigns.

Redfield said the law raises freedom of speech and due process concerns about what steps the state can take to restrict fundraising by judicial candidates in the name of preserving the impartiality of the courts.

Even if the prohibitions do survive litigation, he said the logistical challenges of defining and tracking contributions that fall under the Illinois State Board of Elections would remain.

After the majority party pushed through the first remap of Illinois’ five judicial districts in over 50 years, seats temporarily held by Republican Michael Burke and Democrat Robert Carter will be up for election next year. Republican Rita Garman and Democrat Mary Jane Theis also face once-a-decade retention votes.

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