The nation’s eyes have been on Washington D.C., as a Senate committee on Thursday is scheduled to vote on the confirmation of President Donald Trump’s nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But the makeup of the Illinois Supreme Court is also set to see change.
How much depends on the outcome of a race that’s getting more expensive and contentious by the day.
It’s not your typical race, given there’s no person running against Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride as he seeks a third, decadelong term.
He is, however, facing major opposition to the point that he could lose his seat.
Millions of dollars are being spent on ads accusing Kilbride of being in the pocket of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan; Kilbride’s team is likewise airing ads promising he brings “integrity, independence and fairness” to the state’s courts.
Kilbride, who is from the Quad Cities, represents the 3rd District, which covers some 21 counties in northwestern Illinois.
But the outcome of this race stands to have impact across the entire state, which is why the battle over his retention is getting so much attention — attention Kilbride says is a distraction, and harmful for the judicial system.
The Illinois Chamber of Commerce accuses Kilbride of being cozy with personal injury attorneys who are helping to fund his campaign, and that hurts the state’s business climate.
“Those costs for liability get spread all across the economy,” chamber President Todd Maisch said. “Think about your cost of auto insurance. Would you like it to be less? Or would you like it to be more. It’s more because we’ve got a court system that will be very, very plaintiff friendly.”
Kilbride’s detractors also say he’s cozy with unions (AFSCME Council 31 calls Kilbride an “ally”) and with Madigan.
“It is clear if you look back when he was first elected, Michael Madigan put an awful lot of effort behind his election and was successful,” Maisch said.
Kilbride says Madigan isn’t a factor in court deliberations, and he knows him only casually, as he does other major political figures from both parties.
“We have no relationship, beyond that casual kind of professional distant relationship,” Kilbride said.
Like all judges, when he first ran for a seat on the bench, Kilbride had to declare a party. He ran, and won, as a Democrat.
As such, he had the backing of the Democratic Party of Illinois, helmed by Madigan.
Democrats currently hold a 4-3 majority on the court, and want to keep it.
Republicans see taking out Kilbride as their chance to tip the scales.
Much of their criticism of Kilbride surrounds a 2016 case.
Hundreds of thousands of Illinois voters signed onto a petition to that would remove power from the legislature to decide how its own legislative districts are drawn; critics of the process say Democrats’ ability to draw the last map helped them to keep a lock on power in the General Assembly.
Kilbride wrote the opinion for the majority that the “fair maps” effort was constitutionally flawed, killing the effort.
“It was knocked off the ballot all to protect one person, and his power and that’s Mike Madigan. And so we were outraged and now we have an opportunity to speak back and tell the public that we can do something about this outrage,” said columnist Jim Nowlan, who was part of the redistricting campaign four years ago and it now working to unseat Kilbride. “We shouldn’t abuse the judicial system the way Tom Kilbride did in 2016.”
Kilbride points out that it was a 4-3 decision, not his alone.
“My individual vote has no weight whatsoever unless I’m part of a constitutional majority of four members,” he said. “It just don’t wash to single out one justice.”
He says it was effectively chance that he wrote the opinion in the redistricting case, as they’re assigned on rotation.
“All of us face the same predicament. We’re all elected on a partisan ballot to begin with … and that’s because the Illinois constitution mandates that,” Kilbride said. “But when we get there we set aside our political affiliations. And we don’t wear blue robes, we don’t wear red robes. We wear black robes and that’s to symbolize impartiality. And it’s those individuals on the outside who are looking in, trying to politicize and make this a political contest. And that’s bad for judicial independence in Illinois and across the country.”
Kilbide says voters should consider his record and qualifications: he helped make it legal for TV news cameras to record Illinois court proceeds, and he’s got the nod of the Illinois State Bar Association.
And he has the endorsement of some prominent Republicans, like retired Supreme Court Justice Bob Thomas, who served for nearly 20 years with Kilbride on the bench.
“I knew him to be a conscientious jurist. He asked pointed questions in oral argument. He was always prepared,” Thomas said. “We didn’t always agree – I thought I was right, he thought he was right — but we didn’t get those cases because they were easy. And I think he’s a man of integrity.”
It will take 60% of 3rd District voters to vote “yes” on the retention question for Kilbride to keep his seat.
If he does not get that vote, his former colleagues will choose a replacement who will hold the seat until an election in two years.
Meanwhile, there is sure to be changeover in the court in the new year.
Southern Illinois Justice Lloyd Karmeier, a Republican, is retiring in December, leading to a partisan battle playing out in the 5th District between Republican Appellate Judge David Overstreet and Democratic Appellate Judge Judy Cates.
Chicago voters meanwhile will also see Supreme Court candidate on the ballot.
Appointed Supreme Court Justice P. Scott Neville Jr. won a hotly contested primary for the Democratic nomination, but faces no general election opposition as he seeks to win his first full term to the state’s high court.
Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky