Removing Justice Kilbride affects the independence of the judiciary


Last week, I picked my 15-year-old daughter up from school and told her I had an interview with a Supreme Court justice that afternoon.
She gasped, “Really, Daddy? That’s impressive.”
I said, “Yes, I’ve known Justice Tom Kilbride for 30 years. He’s a good guy.”
“Oh, he’s just an Illinois Supreme Court justice,” my no longer impressed daughter said as she stuck her nose back in a book.
When I related this story to Kilbride, he howled with laughter.
That’s Tom Kilbride: a man void of pretension.
Every decade, voters are asked if the Supreme Court justice representing their district should be retained. Sixty percent must say “yes” for the judge to stay on the bench. And this year, it’s Kilbride’s turn to be on the bubble.
Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he’s in the crosshairs. Monied special interests have made him a target.
For example, billionaire Wisconsin businessman Dick Uihlein, founder of Uline shipping and office products, has given $250,000 toward removing Kilbride. The Judicial Fairness Project, a dark money group that does not disclose its donors, gave $200,000.
Illinois Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Maisch also is calling for Kilbride to be ousted. He was quoted in Crain’s Chicago saying the judge “has been a consistent supporter of organized labor and trial lawyers,” to the detriment of the state’s economy.
Oh, please. Maisch, Uihlein and their ilk have one beef with Kilbride: he’s a Democrat.
And those folks want a Republican in the spot.
During his two-decades on the high court, Kilbride has carved a pragmatic, moderate path. He’s known for his bipartisanship. He’s neither the most liberal member of the court nor the most conservative.

I’ve read his decisions. I agree with many and disagree with some. But I’ve found all of them well-reasoned. Republican Bob Thomas, served 20 years on the high court with Kilbride and likely was the most conservative person on the court during his tenure. But he has endorsed retaining Kilbride, calling him honorable, independent and thoughtful.
“There  is a reason judges wear black robes,” Kilbride told me. “You wouldn’t want them wearing red or blue robes saying they are ‘Republican’ or ‘Democrat.’ You want them to be neutral. You may get elected to the court as a Republican or a Democrat, but you don’t function as one once you are on the court,” he said.
Justices fill vacancies on lower courts and Kilbride routinely fills those spots in his district with both Republicans and Democrats, said Peoria lawyer Tim Bertschy, who heads Kilbride’s judicial selection committee.
“Never once has party affiliation played a role in selecting a judge. Tom has been very clear that he wants just quality judges. When we interview candidates, political affiliation or political activity is not brought up or considered.”
Not all members of the high court have this policy. Some only appoint members of their own party.
Jim Nowlan, a former Republican state representative, is chairing the committee trying to oust Kilbride. He said they hope to leave the Supreme Court deadlocked 3-3 between Republicans and Democrats, if his group is successful in getting Kilbride  removed.
“That way when Mike Madigan comes out with his (redistricting) map, we can have a judge – from outside Cook County – rule its unconstitutional and the supreme court will be deadlocked and unable to reach a majority to overturn the decision.
He presumes the high court would also be deadlocked in picking a replacement for Kilbride.  And he also presumes that a judge will be found who is willing to rule a map – which hasn’t even been drawn yet – is unconstitutional. And he presumes the high court would vote in a partisan manner on a redistricting case.
There are a lot of presumptions there.
But these kinds of political machinations are not why the drafters of the Illinois Constitution allowed for voters to decide whether a judge should be retained. While few drafters of the 1970 constitution are still alive,  I spoke with one of them, Springfield lawyer Mary Lee Leahy, ten years ago about this topic. She died two years later in 2012.
Here is what she had to say, “Nobody ever dreamed that retention would be used in this way. The idea was to give voters a chance to get rid of bad judges – ones who made sloppy decisions or were rude to lawyers or who behaved in an erratic way. It was never intended to be used to punish judges for voting a particular way. The judiciary has to remain independent and act without fear of retaliation of an interest group.”
In other words the way Kilbride is being targeted is an abuse of the process.
The other shortcoming of this process is that it ignores a judge’s accomplishments. During his three-year stint as chief justice, Kilbride did more than perhaps any other Illinois jurist in making courts accessible.
First, he spearheaded an initiative allowing cameras into trial courts. This has made it easier for media organizations to share with the public what is happening in a courtroom.
But his Access to Justice initiative has profoundly changed how Illinois courts operate, Circuit Judge Linnea E. Thompson of Rock Island County said.
“More than 60 percent of people appearing in court in civil cases are not represented by an attorney,” Thompson said. “This program is designed to help them.”
The program:
Revamped legal forms so they are written in plain English rather than legalese.
Clears the way for trial court judges to provide guidance to unrepresented individuals on what they need to do to work through the legal process.
Provides interpreters for individuals not proficient in English.
Encourages lawyers to provide pro bono, or free, services to impoverished individuals.
“Before the Access to Justice initiative, somebody who showed up in court unable to speak English would likely get yelled at,” Thompson said. “For some reason, some judges thought if you talked louder and slower, you were more likely to be understood. Today, we have an alternative. And that’s because of Justice Kilbride.”
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter.