Should judges accept campaign money? Rival candidates disagree

Posted10/4/2010 12:01 AM
  • Candidate Mike Perillo's billboard on Route 83 in Round Lake Beach declares, "Judges shouldn't take money."

    Candidate Mike Perillo's billboard on Route 83 in Round Lake Beach declares, "Judges shouldn't take money." Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

Money how much a candidate has or doesn't have, and the source of those funds is always a critical factor in any political campaign.

But in the race for circuit judge in Lake County's 6th Judicial Subcircuit, money is the big issue as the candidates have taken markedly different positions on campaign financing.

Circuit Judge Jorge Ortiz, a Republican running for the first time since his appointment as a circuit judge in 2008, is accepting donations to finance his campaign.

Democratic challenger Michael Perillo, an attorney making his first bid for the bench, is paying his own way.

The contrasting styles have reopened the debate about how best to inform voters about candidates for judicial office, and it has produced a flash point around some of Perillo's advertising.

Perillo has two roadside billboards, one on Route 83 in Round Lake Beach and one on Route 173 in Antioch, that declare "Judges shouldn't take money."

Ortiz sees the statement as a not-so-subtle suggestion that some manner of bribery influences his decisions and those of other judges.

"Those billboards insult judges everywhere by suggesting that judges take money for illegal reasons," Ortiz said. "There is no place whatsoever for that type of mudslinging in a judicial campaign."

Perillo argues the phrase is a campaign slogan revolving around his decision to refuse donations, and the same words appear in boldface on his website and some pieces of campaign literature.

"Judges shouldn't take money is a declarative statement about the point of my campaign and the funding of all judicial campaigns," he said. "There is no intent at all to suggest bribery on the part of Judge Ortiz or anyone else."

Experts say there is nothing wrong with judges accepting campaign donations and it is much more frequently done than not. However, they also caution the public perception of the practice may undercut the faith in the impartiality of the court system crucial to its existence.

While not as high profile as other races on the Nov. 2 ballot for which candidates generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions, it is not cheap to campaign for judge.

Financial disclosure forms show Perillo deposited $63,960 in his campaign coffers through the period that ended June 30 and had $5,497 on July 1.

For the same period, the documents showed Ortiz had raised $48,296 and had $38,007 in the bank at the end of the reporting period.

The Code of Judicial Conduct and other ethical restraints regulate how the money is raised and from whom.

Judges are not allowed to solicit donations personally, but rather must establish committees to do so for them and avoid at all times what the rules describe as "any impropriety or the appearance of impropriety."

It is not uncommon, or illegal under current law, for lawyers who practice before a sitting judge to contribute to his or her campaign fund.

Ortiz, who accepts donations from lawyers who practice in front of him, stepped down from a divorce case earlier this year after an attorney for one party complained the attorney for the other party had hosted a fundraising event for the judge.

Ortiz said he could not discuss the case or his reasons for stepping aside because it is pending in the circuit, but one expert said the situation could certainly be viewed by the public as creating "the appearance of impropriety."

Jeffrey Shaman, a professor of constitutional law at DePaul University Law School and a recognized expert in judicial ethics, said the definition of "the appearance of impropriety" was left intentionally vague by the drafters of the rules so each situation could be evaluated individually.

"But at the same time, the vagueness of the phrase may be confusing and frustrating to a member of the general public," he said. "There are all sorts of things permissible under the rules that the average member of the public would be suspicious of."

In addition, Shaman said, attorneys have a First Amendment right to donate money to any campaign and have specialized knowledge the general public does not have about who is most qualified for the bench.

Enforcement of the rules is also a consideration, and given that most courthouses traditionally are viewed as extremely gossipy environments, ethical violations would be hard to conceal.

"There is no doubt in my mind at all that if some attorney believed I or any other judge was making decisions based on campaign donations, there would be some phone calls made," Ortiz said. "And those phone calls would be to the Judicial Inquiry Board and the FBI."

While stressing he was not speaking specifically about the Ortiz situation, Perillo said what the public perceives is paramount to the integrity of the court system. He likens the situation to a hypothetical case where the umpires in a baseball game were being paid by one of the teams in the game.

"One of those umpires makes a call that costs the team who is not paying him the game," he said. "There is no way each and every fan of the losing team is not going to believe that the umpire was influenced by his paymaster."

He said he did not enter the campaign with the idea of self-financing but made the decision after a fundraiser.

"Someone hosted a fundraiser for me, and afterward I was not comfortable with the whole idea, so I gave the money back," Perillo said.

"I know there is nothing wrong or illegal about accepting campaign donations, and it is fine if that is what people want to do," he said. "I wanted my campaign to be different, and so this is the route I chose."

Cindi Canary, the director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform in Chicago, believes judicial races pose unique problems in terms of financing.

"If we are going to elect judges in Illinois, and it appears that we are, then some sort of public financing of campaigns is the best method to do so," Canary said. "Judicial candidates are supposed to make decisions based on the facts of a case and the law, and the concept of fundraising just makes everyone so uncomfortable." Charles Hall, a spokesman for the Justice at Stake Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan group working for fair and impartial courts, said the debate in the 6th subcircuit race is a microcosm of a national discussion provoked by the massive influx of spending in judicial races over the last decade.

"Polls show that three of four voters feel that campaign cash affects courtroom decisions," Hall said. "There is no statistical evidence to prove that is the case, but nonetheless it demonstrates how troubled people are by the issue."

He said 39 states have some sort of an election system for judicial posts, and self-financing of campaigns is an uncommon, but not unheard of, practice.

"People have to understand that raising money from someone else is a part of the democratic process, and there is nothing improper nor illegal about doing so," Hall said. "But at the same time, it is a very emotional issue, and as long as money is involved there will be a cloud over the system."