A last-minute, high-dollar campaign has surfaced against two Republicans who are seeking seats on the 5th District Appellate Court, which covers the metro-east and Southern Illinois.
A political action committee called Fair Courts Now formed on Oct. 11 and, as of Wednesday, had raised $930,000. Most of it has come from plaintiff attorneys in the metro-east and St. Louis.
The committee’s expenditures, as of Wednesday, consisted solely of mailings and ad buys in opposition to two candidates running for seats on the 5th District Appellate Court in Mount Vernon: incumbent Justice Randy Moore of Carterville, and Madison County Circuit Judge John Barberis. Both are Republicans.
Moore is challenged by Democrat Jo Beth Weber, who is a circuit judge in Jefferson County. Barberis is running against Brad K. Bleyer, a Democrat and judge serving in the 1st Judicial Circuit, in deep Southern Illinois.
The top donors to Fair Courts Now are the Edwardsville law firm of Gori Julian & Associates ($235,000), the Alton law firm of Simmons Hanley Conroy ($250,000) and the St. Louis law firm of Maune Raichle Hartley French & Mudd ($250,000).
Those three firms specialize in representing plaintiffs in mesothelioma lawsuits against companies that used or made asbestos.
Barberis and Moore addressed the issue on their campaign Facebook pages.
Barberis wrote: “I was wondering if the big-money, power-broker, Democrat plaintiffs firms would try and influence/buy the 5th District Appellate Court. Guess I don't have to wonder anymore. Do we want to allow these fat-cat firms to decide which of their hand-picked judges sit in judgment of all of us?”
Moore wrote: “A powerful group of asbestos lawyers recently spent a shocking amount of money to run negative, misleading attack ads. Know the facts, understand the source, be informed.”
According to Fair Courts Now’s organization documents, the group’s chairman is Bobby Green of Belleville, and its treasurer is Jo Lee Siener, who has an email address at the Simmons Hanley Conroy law firm. Siener referred questions to Green, who could not immediately be reached Thursday.
Emails seeking comment were sent to heads of the law firms that made the largest contributions. They did not immediately reply Thursday.
Fair Courts Now is an independent-expenditure PAC, meaning it cannot make direct contributions to a candidate and cannot coordinate with any candidate.
This isn’t the first time that local plaintiff attorneys have launched a last-minute campaign involving a judicial race. In 2014, plaintiff attorneys poured about $2 million into a campaign aimed at unseating Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier, who is from Washington County. Plaintiff attorneys raised the money in a matter of weeks, beginning in mid-October. Karmeier, a Republican, narrowly won retention to another term on the court.
Barberis’ political committee had about $7,000 on hand as of Sept. 30. Since then, its largest donations have been in the range of $1,000 to $1,500.
Moore’s political committee had about $27,000 available at the end of September. Since then, Moore has made a $30,000 contribution to his own committee. He’s received four other contributions since September, the largest being $2,500 from the Effingham County Republican Central Committee.
State Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, who is chairman of Moore’s campaign committee, said the sudden infusion of cash against Barberis and Moore is no surprise, given what happened in 2014 with Karmeier.
“I’m sure they’ve planned this,” Luechtefeld said. “This is not a spur-of-the-moment thing.”
He added, “My question would be this: Why would a large trial lawyer firm — who has a lot of asbestos cases and a lot of class-actions — why would they want to do this? Why would they care? Why is it worth throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money into this? I think the answer is pretty clear. They would like an edge in that court, and they expect to have cases there. It’s like an investment.”
Luechtefeld said he doubts there’s time for a PAC to raise significant money that would oppose the Democratic candidates. Luechtefeld said businesses, which often support Republican candidates, don’t get too excited about races for appellate courts.
“Businesses don’t see themselves ever being in a court of appeals,” Luechtefeld said.
Contributors to Fair Courts Now political action committee:
$50,000: Keefe, Keefe & Unsell PC, 6 Executive Woods Court, Belleville
$10,000: Bullock Campbell Bullock Harris, 8203 Willow Place Drive, Houston
$235,000: Gori Julian & Associates, 156 N Main St., Edwardsville
$25,000: Pohlman Reporting Company LLC, 10 S Broadway, Suite 1400, St. Louis
$5,000: Clay M. Fostel, attorney, The Lanier Law Firm 12950 Kimberley Lane, Houston
$10,000: Charles E. Valles Jr., attorney, Valles Law Firm, PLLC 5705 Southern Hills Drive, Flower Mound, Texas
$10,000: Sarah Paskiewicz, owner, Paskiewicz Court Reporting, 316 Grindstone Road, Chatham, Ill.
$250,000: Simmons Hanly Conroy, One Court Street, Alton
$50,000: SWMK Law, 701 Market St., Suite 1575, St. Louis
$250,000: Maune Raichle Hartley French & Mudd LLC, 1015 Locust St., Suite 1200, St. Louis
$25,000: Flint & Associates LLC, 112 Magnolia Drive, Glen Carbon
$10,000: US Periodic Pmt Assignment Co, LLC, 737 Main St., Suite 100, Buffalo, N.Y.