Abortion rights at the forefront of Supreme Court race
SPRINGFIELD -- Two seats on the Illinois Supreme Court are up for vote on Nov. 8, and the outcomes of those races could flip the state's high court from a Democratic majority to a Republican one for the first time in more than 50 years.
In the 2nd District, longtime Judge Elizabeth "Liz" Rochford, a Democrat, is facing former Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran, a recent Republican U.S. Senate candidate who has never served as a judge.
They're vying for a 10-year term on the Supreme Court in a district that includes DeKalb, Kane, Kendall, Lake and McHenry counties.
It's a race that's become more visible on the airwaves in recent days, with Gov. J.B. Pritzker chipping $500,000 into the Rochford campaign war chest. Her backers have aired ads that highlight Curran's long history of anti-abortion rhetoric.
Rochford, meanwhile, has support from abortion rights advocacy groups and her campaign website bills her as a champion of women's rights.
In recent podcast interviews with Capitol News Illinois, Rochford cited her experience and record as evidence that she'll approach the job with impartiality, while Curran asserted independence from his party and claimed past controversial comments won't have any bearing on how he approaches his work on the bench.
Rochford has served as a 19th Judicial Circuit judge since her appointment to the bench in 2012. Prior to that, she served more than 22 years as a commissioner on the Illinois Court of Claims, three years as an assistant state's attorney in Cook County and 13 years in private practice.
The Illinois State Bar Association and DuPage County Bar Association rated her "highly recommended," while the Lake County Bar rated her "highly qualified."
"That process is a very intense process," Rochford said of the ratings interviews. "It's very exhaustive, and it's done by a panel of attorneys and retired judges who have worked across a vast scope of areas of practice, (and) are from different political backgrounds."
She said the panel assesses integrity, impartiality, legal ability, temperament, court management, character and "experience in and around the courthouse."
"So I am very proud to have earned those highest recommendations ... because I think it speaks very well to the broad scope of my experience over 35 years in law," she said.
She also touted experience she believes will aid her in improving the administrative duties of the court, including setting up local programs in Lake County such as a guardianship help desk and creating a courtroom committed to serving self-represented litigants in family law.
Curran is less than two years removed from his nomination as the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, having unsuccessfully challenged longtime Democratic incumbent Dick Durbin and gained a reputation for not shying away from controversy.
He has also practiced law for more than three decades, starting in the Cook County state's attorney's office in 1988, then becoming an assistant Lake County state's attorney two years later. He served as chief of the Gang Crimes Bureau at the state attorney general's office and in 2006 was elected Lake County sheriff as a Democrat before switching to the Republican Party in 2008. He was reelected in 2010 and 2014. He went back into private practice after losing in Lake County in 2018.
He was rated "not recommended" by the Illinois State Bar Association, and did not participate in interviews with the county associations, resulting in not qualified or not recommended assessments.
He said those ratings and the fact that he isn't a judge don't matter, emphasizing his experience as a private practice attorney and independent streak as a county sheriff.
"I've tried more juries than 99% of Illinois lawyers," he said when asked about the ratings. "You know, I think that the people who have seen me will tell you that I'm a super talented lawyer."
Curran said 70% of trial lawyer donations go to Democrats and suggested the state bar association favors that party. But in the 3rd District race for Supreme Court between incumbent Republican Michael Burke and Democratic challenger Mary Kay O'Brien, the organization gave Burke higher ratings across the board.
Curran said in an interview with Capitol News Illinois his judicial philosophy is a belief in "natural law," citing the philosophies of Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Jefferson and Socrates.
In a separate interview in July on the "Public Affairs" show hosted by Jeff Berkowitz and published on the Illinois Channel YouTube page in July, he said he believed "there's no question there's a deep state," and it was aligned against him in the GOP primary.
In his interview with Capitol News Illinois, he said he didn't recall the post-primary interview and didn't directly define "deep state" or answer as to whether he believes in one, but he said he believes "most Republicans" are now on board with his candidacy.
While running for Senate in 2020, Curran apologized for a comment he made that the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis was "not much of a civil rights leader" because he didn't speak out against abortion in the Black community. He said while he describes himself as "Catholic" and "pro-life," his past claims won't have any bearing on how he rules on a law's constitutionality.
"Our job is not to legislate from the bench," he said. "The Illinois General Assembly passed a statute, you know, allowing abortion, you know, very, very, very late, more so than any other state in the nation. And it's the job of the General Assembly to pass laws. It's not the job of the court. I have no authority to write laws and I don't see any reason to believe that these laws are going to get overturned."
And while Curran's Facebook page circulated claims about voter fraud in the 2020 election in a Jan. 3, 2021, post, he said other people had access to that page and he hasn't posted about the election.
"I've said Joe Biden won, and I absolutely believe that," he said.
Curran said in previous campaigns he was "kind of a bowling ball in a China shop."
But as a judge, he said, his job will be "to call balls and strikes," adding that "there's a lot of laws that are on the books that I personally disagree with, but they're completely constitutional."
As proof of his independence, he said, he "stood up to the brass" in Lake County on the subject of wrongful convictions, calling for the firing or resignation of the head of the county's criminal division and making political enemies in the effort.
Curran asserted that Pritzker's donation to Rochford was an attempt to ensure a "rubber stamp" on the court, and he faulted Rochford for previously donating to now-indicted Chicago Alderman Ed Burke, the husband of Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne M. Burke.
"We need balance in the state. And the only way we're going to really, truly get balance is by flipping that court from 4-3 Democratic court to 4-3 Republican," Curran said.
Rochford said donations and endorsements play no role in how she rules. Her judicial experience, she said, has helped her strengthen the "brick wall" between her judicial duties and role as a candidate.
"I will tell you that after 10 years on the bench, when you put the black robe on all of your personal opinions, and you know, predispositions, are at the door, and you really are addressing the facts as they are before you, and applying the rule of law," she said.
Curran and Rochford each cited the "judicial canons of ethics," which are included in the Illinois Supreme Court code of conduct that prohibits candidates from stating how they would rule on any given topic.
"We cannot speak on behalf of a political party. We cannot in any way appear to commit to outcomes on cases," Rochford said. "So matters that could potentially come before the Supreme Court, I can't tell you how I might rule on them or tell you my opinion on them. Because that would be a demonstration of a potential bias."
Curran was more willing to state his views on certain topics. That included a controversial decision handed down by the court's Democratic majority that blocked a constitutional amendment from appearing on the 2016 ballot. The amendment would have put the job of legislative redistricting in the hands of a nonpartisan commission rather than the General Assembly if voters approved.
In a 4-3 decision, the Democratic majority ruled the ballot proposal went beyond the narrow scope outlined in the state Constitution that governs citizen initiatives.
"Why should the citizenry of Illinois go out there and get signatures for a referendum for a fair map and get it on the ballot -- all the work that goes to having fair maps where we're not gerrymandering the heck out of these districts solely to maintain power -- only to have the Supreme Court shoot it down?" Curran said. "I mean, I'm not promising how I'm going to rule on any decision. But I think that, you know, for people that see that, it shows that you shouldn't have a lot of confidence in the way the Supreme Court has been going."
Opponents of that decision used it as the main attack against former Justice Thomas Kilbride, a Democrat, in their attempt to oust him in 2020. Kilbride became the first sitting justice to lose a retention race, garnering 56.5% of the vote in favor of retention while needing 60%.
Rochford declined to comment on the implications of that vote.
"There are a lot of people who are engaged in very extreme political views," she said. "But that's not where I live, you know, I live in the work of the courts. ... That's what I do best. And really, political commentary is not my forte."
Curran spoke more directly to the role of partisanship on the high court, stating that while he wouldn't rule in a partisan manner, he'd rule in a manner "that is a balance to the governor."
"Let's say Darren Bailey wins -- he is behind in the polls and everything but, you know, I hope Darren Bailey wins," Curran said when asked what's at stake in the Supreme Court election. "Even if he wins, chances are he's going to be totally ineffective in many regards, because of the fact that the General Assembly has enough votes to override any veto by the governor. So the state will continue to be run by one party, that party being the Democrats. And there's no check and balance or anything in the state."
When Rochford was asked what's at stake, she pointed to the fact that open Supreme Court races don't come up very often and elected justices serve 10-year terms
"I think it's essential that the Supreme Court justice has proper credentials and experience to sit on the court," she said.
There are five Supreme Court districts in Illinois. Three justices on the seven-member court come from District 1, which is Cook County. The remaining four districts are represented by one justice each.
Justice Mary Jane Thies, a Democrat, is up for a retention vote in District 1.