Judges cite court drug scandal for disputed campaign tactic

Circuit judges find a loophole, plan resignations to avoid retention elections

By Alan Scher Zagier
Associated Press

BELLEVILLE, Ill. (AP) — A move by several southern Illinois judges to avoid a November election in which they would require more votes than most other candidates is drawing attention due to skyrocketing campaign costs and the undue influence that money might have.

The three Democratic St. Clair County circuit judges plan to retire later this year to avoid retention elections, in which they would run unopposed but need 60 percent approval rather than a simple majority. Judges John Baricevic, Bob Haida and Robert LeChien argue that if they retire then they are free to seek election as first-time candidates and would only need to exceed a 50 percent vote threshold.

The tactic is being challenged by Belleville’s city clerk, a Republican, and criticized by those who believe Illinois would be better served if its judges were appointed.

“If you’re a judge in a political system, you find a way to play within the system,” said Debra Erenberg, director of state affairs for Justice at Stake, an advocacy group that favors public financing of judicial elections. “They have found a loophole.”

The judges’ collective decision was fueled by accusations that they had turned a blind eye to the behavior of Michael Cook, a former St. Clair drug court judge who was imprisoned for two years for heroin possession and a weapons violation, said Baricevic, the county’s chief judge. Cook’s downfall came after the March 2013 death by cocaine overdose of St. Clair associate judge Joseph Christ at a Pike County hunting lodge owned by Cook’s family.

Judges in retention elections are limited in the topics they can discuss with voters, including Cook and Christ, so the three thought it best to temporarily resign.

Talk-radio host Bob Romanik, a former Metro East police chief, strip club owner and twice-convicted felon running for a state legislative seat as a Republican, says the St. Clair courthouse has a “culture of corruption.”

“Using ‘corrupt’ and ‘judge’ in the same sentence is a terrible accusation,” said Baricevic, who, along with Haida, was a state’s attorney in the traditionally Democratic county. “If you’re going to, in essence, get charged with a criminal allegation in an election, you ought to be able to respond.”

Groups representing plaintiffs’ lawyers and business interests increasingly are targeting the state’s judicial elections, which Baricevic and Haida also mentioned in separate interviews as factors in their decision. In 2014, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier barely won a retention election dominated by third-party spending from plaintiffs’ lawyers and the Republican State Leadership Committee. That followed a 2004 partisan race in which a record $9.3 million was spent as Karmeier, a Republican considered friendly to business, defeated a Democratic appellate judge.

Two of the St. Clair County judges face Republican opponents in the general election; Haida is unopposed.

The state Constitution says sitting judges “may” file to run for retention, wording that Belleville clerk Dallas Cook says indicates a requirement. The three judges argue that the phrasing allows them to choose between retention elections and partisan contests.

In response to a suit by the Belleville clerk — a GOP candidate for St. Clair County circuit court clerk — a Sangamon County judge in February ruled that the St. Clair judges can remain on the November ballot.

“Judges should be held to the highest of standards,” Cook said of that decision, which he has appealed. “It could not be any clearer that they are trying to game the system.”

Judicial reformers who favor the broader use of merit selection — a process used to select associate judges in Illinois— say the St. Clair scenario is just one more example of the need for change.

About two-thirds of the 50 states have merit selection for some or all of their judges, including Missouri, where a judicial selection process adopted in 1940 has become a national model. Under the Missouri Plan, the governor appoints judges on the state Supreme Court, lower appeals courts and Kansas City and St. Louis trial courts. A special nominating commission selects finalists for the governor’s consideration.