Illinois Supreme Court race heating up

March 9, 2012 3:21:44 PM PST
With no presidential contest at the top and no statewide campaigns to consider, the Democratic primary to select a nominee for the Illinois Supreme Court might be the hottest race in Cook County.

Supreme Court candidate Joy Cunningham says she running as an outsider.

"The playing field is not level," Cunningham said. "It's not level for candidates who are not "insider candidates."

One of her opponents, incumbent Justice Mary Jane Theis has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on broadcast television ads. Theis is running for a first full term after being appointed to fill the vacancy caused by Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald's retirement in 2010.

"And now I'm proud to stand before the people and tell them about my background," said Theis.

Theis is endorsed by the Cook County democratic party and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

"I'm making a select few endorsements where I think it's important," Emanuel said.

But Judge Cunninghamm, aiming to become the first African-American female on the high court, counters with Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle:

"She's the candidate who I think is the most distinctive and I'm proud to be able to support her," Preckwinkle said.

Also in the race is current Appellate Court Judge and former Cook County Circuit Clerk Aurelia Pucinski, who isn't worried about her opponents' endorsements.

"I'm independent," Pucinski said. "If I get to the Supreme Court, I won't owe anything except to the voters who put me there."

Attorney Thomas Flannigan, who is not currently a judge, is the fourth candidate on the democratic primary ballot.

John Marshall law professor Sam Jones says high profile endorsers in a campaign for the Supreme Court could pose a potential perception problem.

"We can never really develop a system where there's not going to be some concern over endorsements, and how beholden and independent a judge may be or how susceptible they may be to the influence of somebody who supported them," Jones said.

Judge Theis says Mayor Emanuel's support would make no difference in how she would decide cases.

"Judicial independence is the bedrock of American law. I hold those values very, very dear to me," Theis said.

But Judge Cunningham suspects the mayor has helped raise money for Theis.

"Raising large sums of money for a judicial candidate for the Supreme Court, I think that's a little different," Cunningham said.

A spokesman for the mayor's political operation confirms that Emanuel has appeared at several fundraisers for Theis, as well as events for candidates in other races.

Whoever wins the Cook County Democratic primary must face the Republican nominee in the fall and the winner then will serve a ten-year term on the Illinois Supreme Court.