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EYE ON ILLINOIS: Don’t sleep on importance of Illinois Supreme Court races

Supreme Court. Election year. Partisan politics: They’re not just for Washington.

Long before recent national developments, Illinois politicians were keenly focused on the November ballot as it relates to the highest court in the state.

The 1970 Illinois Constitution preserved the size of the state Supreme Court – seven – but instead of one representative from each district, established the makeup as one each from the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th appellate districts and three from the 1st, which is Cook County.

Like appellate and circuit court judges, Supreme Court judges go through a partisan primary and a general election. At stake is a 10-year term. If a judge wants another 10 years, they stand for a retention vote, which requires 60% approval. Judges who fail to win retention are replaced as if they had retired, died or otherwise left office: the remaining members appoint a replacement who serves until the next election.

P. Scott Neville Jr., of the 1st District, joined the court this way in June 2018, appointed as a replacement for the retiring Charles Freeman. He survived a crowded Democratic primary in March and is running unopposed for a 10-year term.

2nd District Republican Judge Robert Thomas retired Feb. 29. Because that was too close to the primary election, his appointed replacement, Michael Burke, doesn’t have to pursue a complete term until 2022. 

5th District Republican Lloyd Karmeier still is on the bench but has announced his retirement effective Dec. 6. Since he gave sufficient notice, there was time to conduct a primary for his replacement. Voters will choose between Republican Judy Cates and Democrat David Overstreet.

Finally, 3rd District Democrat Thomas Kilbride, who joined the court in 2000, is seeking his third term. His retention vote, from a partisan standpoint, appears to be the main event. Republicans haven’t been shy about calling for his defeat, and Monday, the state GOP rolled out its Vote NO on Kilbride coalition, which includes “more than 500 elected officials, community leaders and activists,” headlined by all five Republican congressmen. 

The group labels Kilbride as “Madigan’s favorite judge,” referring to the powerful House speaker and chairman of the state Democratic Party, implying $2.8 million in campaign funding for Kilbride effectively bought his support to block changes to legislative map rules and “every major economic reform that could improve the state’s legal and business climates – namely pension reform, tort reform and medical malpractice caps.”

Kilbride just launched his retention campaign, championing his access initiatives and role in pushing to allow cameras in courtrooms and digitize legal records. 

These races might not draw as much attention in Illinois as the income tax referendum or federal offices, but they’re no less deserving of informed votes.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at

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