Metro-East News

Republican candidates call Bar Association rankings a ‘weapon’ for Democrats

The Illinois State Bar Association judicial evaluations are either a popularity contest, a job critique or a political tool, depending on which judicial candidate voters believe.

Candidates seeking election to the bench are reviewed by lawyers who appear before them on integrity, impartiality, court management, health, legal ability, sensitivity to diversity and bias and temperament for an overall rating of “meets requirements of office.”

“I believe this is a weapon that is used by the Democratic party as a method to assassinate good and competent Republican candidates,” said Ron Duebbert, a Republican candidate running for a seat on the bench in the 20th Judicial Circuit.

Duebbert received a 26.97 score for the meets requirements of office category. He was not recommended.

Chief Judge John Baricevic, Duebbert’s Democratic opponent, disagreed. Baricevic received a score of 88.58.

“I would think that the lawyers are representative of the county,” Baricevic said, noting the county votes about 55 percent Democrat. “And I got 88 percent of the votes. … These polls are anonymous. What benefit does someone get by giving me a good score if I don’t deserve one?”

The two other Democrats received recommended scores. Circuit Judge Bob Haida received a 93.67 score — the highest in the circuit.

I believe this is a weapon that is used by the Democratic party as a method to assassinate good and competent Republican candidates.

Republican Ron Duebbert

“It’s a good way for those of us running for election to get feedback from the lawyers who come before us,” Haida said. “It’s the only thing we have to determine how they think we are doing.”

Circuit Judge Robert LeChien received a rating of 69.91.

LaNinya Cason, who has served as an associate judge for 12 years, received the lowest scores — 21.81 for meets requirements of office.

“That score is comical,” she said on Thursday. “I really can’t believe the lawyers would be so political and do that. Before I changed political parties, that score would have been unthinkable.”

Cason was a Democrat when she was appointed as an appellate court judge in 2003. She switched to the Republican party in 2012 when she ran for a circuit court position. In 2015, she received a rating of 45.83.

“I have been on the bench for 12 years and have handled all kinds of cases from traffic to felony. Anybody who comes before me will know that I am a fair and just judge,” Cason said. “I can’t help that there are specific group of lawyers who are politically influenced.”

It’s a good way for those of us running for election to get feedback from the lawyers who come before us.

Democrat Robert Haida

The poll is conducted by mail and is sent to all Illinois State Bar Association members in the circuit from which a candidate seeks election. Licensed attorneys who are not ISBA members, or any attorney outside the circuit or district may request a ballot. Attorneys are asked to respond only if they have sufficient knowledge about the candidate’s qualifications for judicial office to give a fair, informed opinion.

Candidates are rated based on whether respondents agree that the candidates meets acceptable requirements for office. Candidates receiving 65 percent or more are recommended. Opinions expressed in the poll are of those attorneys who chose to respond and do not reflect the opinion of the Illinois State Bar Association or the opinion of all attorneys.

The Illinois Civil Justice League, a group representing businesses that says its mission is to “work for fairness in the Illinois civil justice system,” released its own ratings. The group advocates a “tort reform” agenda, which it calls “civil justice reform.” The organization has a political action committee called JUSTPAC, which supports candidates that support “tort reform” — placing limits on peoples’ access to the courts for harms caused by corporations.

The group did not recommend any of the three Democratic candidates from St. Clair County.

“St. Clair County Chief Judge John Baricevic and Circuit Judges Robert LeChien and Robert Haida, all of whom were facing an uphill retention election, which requires 60 percent voter approval in November, have purposefully gamed the system. Instead of running for retention, they subverted the process by turning in their resignations effective Dec. 4 and filed as candidates in the March 15 primary, where they would only need a simple majority to win,” Illinois Civil Justice League President Jon Pastuovic said.

“While none of these three judges have primaries, it is critical that voters in St. Clair County are aware that with this maneuver, these judges ignored the intent and spirit of the Illinois Constitution and are deemed Not Recommended. Moreover, their behavior is just another example of why Illinois must reform its civil justice system.”

A Sangamon County judge has ruled that Baricevic, LeChien and Haida can remain on the ballot.

Baricevic said that if the judges had filed for retention instead of re-election, there would be no Republicans on the ballot.

“The ICJL is a lobbying group for the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. They represent a business community, they don’t represent what their name is. They are a special interest group,” Baricevic said. “They want this to be decided by a judge, a party of one. They don’t want their candidates to face the scrutiny of the voters.”

Beth Hundsdorfer: 618-239-2570, @bhundsdorfer