Contributions hit $1.6 million in Illinois Supreme Court race
Judicial candidates running for the Illinois Supreme Court from the First District have raised about $1.6 million in campaign contributions, a review of Illinois Board of Elections records shows.
The 1st District comprises all of Cook County.
Justice Mary Jane Theis, a Chicago Democrat appointed to fill a 1st District vacancy on the high court in 2010, has raised about $1.07 million, according to campaign disclosure records that list contributions of more than $1,000.
Fellow Democrat and 1st District Appellate Court Justice Joy Virginia Cunningham has raised about $540,000 as of March 1, said Cunningham's press secretary, Kathy Posner.
Justice Aurelia Marie Pucinski, a Chicago Democrat now serving on the 1st District Appellate Court, has raised about $30,000, according to spokesman George Bogdanich.
Thomas W. Flannigan, a Winnetka lawyer in private practice, is not accepting campaign contributions.
Posner said it's the first time in recent years that a Cook County Supreme Court race has been contested, which means candidates, including Cunningham, will rely more heavily on advertising in what is a very expensive media market.
This isn't Illinois' first judicial campaign to top $1 million. The 2010 retention race for current Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride generated more than $2.5 million in contributions, National Public Radio reported. That included hundreds of thousands of dollars from a political action committee whose members tried to unseat Kilbride because they say he was unsympathetic to business.
Cook County's recording-breaking 2000 Supreme Court race found two candidates -- Circuit Court Judge Thomas Fitzgerald and Appellate Justice Morton Zwick -- spending more than $2 million, according to a 2003 report by Chicago's Appleseed Fund for Justice and the Chicago Council of Lawyers. Fitzgerald won.
The same was true in a 2nd District race, in which DuPage County Judge Bonnie Wheaton and Appellate Justice Thomas Rathje each spent more than $1 million, largely of their own money, the Appleseed report indicated. But neither won. The candidate who spent the least, Robert R. Thomas, prevailed. The 2nd District stretches across the northern part of Illinois and includes the collar counties.
As the sole Republican candidate in the 1st District race, Cook County Judge James G. Riley says that he hasn't put much effort into fundraising yet because he is running unopposed in the primary.
Riley, who has raised more than $40,000 by his own estimate, anticipates an expensive general election campaign.
"Cook County is a big place. This is not an election where you send out postcards," he said. "It's going to involve mass media, billboards, newspapers and things of that nature, and they're expensive."
"It's a big county and you have to have money to communicate with voters," said Theis campaign manager Brendan O'Sullivan.
Theis abides by Supreme Court rules which prohibits candidates from soliciting donations themselves, said O'Sullivan, who says Theis' supporters set up a committee and raised funds for her campaign. A review of the Board of Elections report of Theis contributions revealed most ranged from $1,000 to $10,000 and were attributed to individuals, law firms and other businesses.
"It shows she has a lot of support, and her message is resonating," O'Sullivan said.
Not all of the candidates have embraced fundraising. One has rejected it outright.
Flannigan has pledged to reject a pension if he is elected and later retires from the Supreme Court. His wife, Cook County Judge Ellen L. Flannigan, has also vowed not to accept contributions for her 1st District appellate court race.
"I don't think judicial candidates should take contributions," he said. "Money comes with strings attached, and we're beholden only to justice."
Even though campaign contributions are not illegal, Flannigan says the system operates better when no candidates accept them. He acknowledges his stance puts him at a disadvantage when it comes to informing voters about his campaign.
"I think it's the right thing to do," he said. "If people agree with my idea, this is their chance to show their support."
Pucinski, who served three terms as clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County, has refused contributions from attorneys and law firms with business before the appellate court and has limited individual contributions from attorneys to $75 and contributions from law firms, businesses and labor unions to $500.
"Voters should consider whether candidates for the state's highest court can truly be impartial if they receive a million dollars from large law firms and others that do business with the city of Chicago or Cook County," Pucinski said via email.