New Report Outlines How to Limit the Influence of Corporate Campaign Cash on the Illinois Justice System
Washington, D.C. — News dropped last week that Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier could face questions under oath about his vote to overturn a $1 billion verdict against State Farm after the company spent millions of dollars on his election. The Center for American Progress today released a new analysis unpacking the lessons learned from this controversy and offering recommendations for how Illinois legislators can address the shortcomings of state campaign finance laws and judicial ethics rules.
A lawsuit in an Illinois federal court alleges that State Farm recruited Justice Karmeier to run for a seat on the court and used third parties to secretly funnel millions of dollars to his campaign. After being elected with such overwhelming financial support from State Farm, the justice chose not to recuse himself from a decision to reverse a $1 billion verdict that had been leveled against the company. State Farm and Justice Karmeier deny the allegations.
“This lawsuit could shed some light on an extraordinary conflict of interest that raises troubling questions about the state of our justice system,” said Billy Corriher, author of the analysis and associate of CAP’s Legal Progress campaign. “If judges are ruling on cases involving companies that secretly spent millions to elect them, then the public will doubt the legitimacy of the judicial process.”
To ensure that moving forward the Illinois court system isn’t simply awarding justice to the highest bidder, the analysis recommends that legislators consider reforming judicial recusal rules and implementing a small-donor matching public financing program.
- The adoption of mandatory recusal rules or better recusal procedures could limit the influence of corporate campaign cash on judicial decisions. Illinois currently has vague recusal rules that do not require judges to recuse themselves from ruling in cases involving campaign contributors. Justice Karmeier’s colleagues decided not to ban Karmeier from the State Farm case despite the fact that the company’s employees and associates made massive contributions to the justice’s campaign.
- Illinois could consider adopting judicial rules that subject recusal decisions to a special panel of retired judges or appellate judges. Such panels would prevent the challenged justice from influencing the final decision regarding the adequacy of the recusal motion.
- Procedural rules that create avenues for plaintiffs to appeal recusal decisions could also help safeguard against the influence that corporate campaign cash has on the justice system in Illinois. Illinois law did not provide the plaintiffs in the State Farm case any option to appeal Karmeier’s colleagues’ decision not to excuse the justice from the decision.
- In addition to shoring up recusal reforms, Illinois should explore options for public financing programs, which can help keep litigants from using campaign cash to influence courts. New York has tested small-donor matching-fund systems in which each dollar of a donation under $175 is be matched by $6 in public funds and has found that the system results in more diverse representatives whose campaigns are funded by middle- and working-class constituents.
Illinois should act now, before there is another judicial-campaign scandal, to implement stronger rules governing judicial ethics and campaign finance. Such action could help ensure that the integrity of the court is not questioned.
Read “Dodging a Billion-Dollar Verdict” by Billy Corriher and Brent DeBaumont
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