Recently, I picked up my 15-year-old daughter from school and told her I had an interview with a Supreme Court justice that afternoon.
She gasped in amazement.
“Really, Daddy? That’s impressive.”
I was pleased, to say the least.
“Yes, I’ve known Justice Tom Kilbride for 30 years,” I said. “He’s a good guy.”
Her response was more typical of a teenager.
“Oh,” my now-unimpressed daughter said as she stuck her nose back in a book. “He’s just an Illinois Supreme Court justice.”
When I related that story to Kilbride, he howled with laughter.
That’s Tom Kilbride: a man void of pretension.
Every decade, voters are asked if the Supreme Court justice representing their district should be retained. Sixty percent must vote “yes” for the judge to stay on the bench. And, this year it’s Kilbride’s turn to be on the bubble.
Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say he’s in the crosshairs. Special-interest groups with money have made Kilbride a target.
For example, billionaire Wisconsin businessman Dick Uihlein, founder of Uline shipping and office products, has given $250,000 toward removing Kilbride. The Judicial Fairness Project, a dark money group that does not disclose its donors, gave $200,000.
Illinois Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Maisch also is calling for Kilbride to be ousted. He was quoted in Crain’s Chicago Business saying the judge “has been a consistent supporter of organized labor and trial lawyers” to the detriment of the state’s economy.
Maisch, Uihlein and their ilk have one beef with Kilbride: he’s a Democrat. And, those folks want a Republican in the spot.
During his two-decades on the high court, Kilbride has carved a pragmatic, moderate path. He’s known for his bipartisanship. He’s neither the most liberal member of the court nor the most conservative.
I’ve read his decisions. I agree with many and disagree with some. But, I’ve found all of them well reasoned.
Republican Bob Thomas served 20 years on the high court with Kilbride and likely was the most conservative justice on the court during his tenure. But, he has endorsed retaining Kilbride, calling him honorable, independent and thoughtful.
“There is a reason judges wear black robes,” Kilbride told me. “You wouldn’t want them wearing red or blue robes saying they are ‘Republican’ or ‘Democrat.’ You want them to be neutral. You may get elected to the court as a Republican or a Democrat, but you don’t function as one once you are on the court.”
Justices fill vacancies on lower courts, and Kilbride routinely fills those spots in his district with both Republicans and Democrats, according to Peoria lawyer Tim Bertschy, who heads Kilbride’s judicial selection committee.
“Never once has party affiliation played a role in selecting a judge,” Bertschy said. “Tom has been very clear that he wants just quality judges. When we interview candidates, political affiliation or political activity are not brought up or considered.”
Not all members of the high court have this policy. Some only appoint members of their own party.
Jim Nowlan, a former Republican state representative, is chairing the committee that is trying to oust Kilbride. Nowlan said committee members hope to leave the state Supreme Court deadlocked 3-3 between Republicans and Democrats if his group is successful in getting Kilbride removed.
“That way when Mike Madigan comes out with his [redistricting] map, we can have a judge—from outside Cook County—rule it unconstitutional,” Nowlan said, “and the supreme court will be deadlocked and unable to reach a majority to overturn the decision.”
He presumes the high court would also be deadlocked in picking a replacement for Kilbride. And, he also presumes that a judge will be found who is willing to rule that a map—which hasn’t even been drawn yet—is unconstitutional. He also presumes the high court would vote in a partisan manner on a redistricting case.
That’s a lot of presumptions.
However, these kinds of political machinations are not why the drafters of the Illinois Constitution allowed voters to decide whether a judge should be retained.
While few drafters of the 1970 Constitution are still alive, I spoke with one of them, Springfield lawyer Mary Lee Leahy, 10 years ago about this topic. She died two years later in 2012.
Here is what she had to say.
“Nobody ever dreamed that retention would be used in this way. The idea was to give voters a chance to get rid of bad judges—ones who made sloppy decisions or were rude to lawyers or who behaved in an erratic way,” Leahy said. “It was never intended to be used to punish judges for voting a particular way. The judiciary has to remain independent and act without fear of retaliation of an interest group.”
In other words, the way Kilbride is being targeted is an abuse of the process.
The other shortcoming of that process is it ignores a judge’s accomplishments. During his three-year stint as chief justice, Kilbride did more than perhaps any other Illinois jurist in making courts accessible.
First, he spearheaded an initiative allowing cameras into trial courts. That has made it easier for media organizations to share with the public what is happening in a courtroom.
And, his Access to Justice initiative has profoundly changed how Illinois courts operate, according to Circuit Judge Linnea E. Thompson of Rock Island County.
“More than 60 percent of people appearing in court in civil cases are not represented by an attorney,” Thompson said. “This program is designed to help them.”
The program includes the following:
•Revamped legal forms so they are written in plain English rather than legalese.
•Cleared the way for trial court judges to provide guidance to unrepresented individuals on what they need to do to work through the legal process.
•Provided interpreters for individuals not proficient in English.
•Encouraged lawyers to provide pro-bono services, meaning free of charge, to impoverished individuals.
“Before the Access to Justice initiative, somebody who showed up in court unable to speak English would likely get yelled at,” Thompson said. “For some reason, some judges thought if you talked louder and slower, you were more likely to be understood.
“Today, we have an alternative, and that’s because of Justice Kilbride.”
Editor’s note: Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.