Gov. Bruce Rauner on Wednesday said Illinois trial lawyers should not be able to give campaign donations to elected judges.
The comment made up just one sentence in the 15-page transcript of Rauner’s first State of the State speech, but the president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association (ITLA) said it was “the most anti-American thing I have ever heard a governor say.”
Rauner's exact words were: “In time, we should also take another step towards trustworthy government by prohibiting trial lawyer donations to elected judges, we should move toward merit based judicial reform as supported by the American Bar Association.”
The new governor said that after suggesting organizations with state collective bargaining agreements and those funded by entities getting state Medicaid money should be banned from making political contributions just like businesses with state contracts currently are.
“I think it’s remarkably telling that the governor of a major state in this country just announced that one segment of society cannot participate in democracy,” ILTA President John Cooney said by phone from the Capitol in Springfield.
“What’s next? Are we going to ban doctors from participating? Nurses? How about firemen? How about a union member?”
Cooney, a partner at Cooney & Conway in Chicago, said Rauner’s call for a ban on trial lawyer donations is “completely unconstitutional" and very concerning as it would prevent a lawyer representing a plaintiff paralyzed in a work accident from making campaign contributions to judges, but not a lawyer defending a corporate giant like Pfizer.
He said the only way such “a preposterous standpoint” could become a reality is if lawmakers “deleted the U.S. Constitution.” Needless to say, Cooney doesn't think Rauner's idea to prohibit trial lawyers from donating to judges will gain much, if any, traction.
“I can’t imagine any responsible public official, with or without a law degree, in public support of the suggestion that a member of any profession, race or religion not be allowed to participate in democracy,” Cooney said.
David Levitt, president of the Illinois Association of Defense Trial Counsel (IDC), said there is no question about it: trial lawyers have given large sums money in major judicial races and as a group, have had a lot of influence in the state legislature.
And, he said, Illinois’ current systems for selecting judges and donating to their campaigns are broken.
While he's not sure if there is a clear cut solution, Levitt, a partner at Hinshaw & Culbertson in Chicago, said he does know that a group of plaintiff lawyers put more than $1 million into a campaign opposing the retention of Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier just weeks before the November election.
Many of the lawyers who donated to the effort to unseat Karmeier are involved in two ongoing cases that if decided in their favor, could mean millions in attorneys fees.
“That much money into a Supreme Court retention is just wrong,” Levitt said, noting that just a decade earlier, Karmeier was involved in the most expensive state Supreme Court race in history, with the business community giving him millions while trial lawyers donated millions to his Democratic opponent, Gordon Maag.
Levitt said judicial campaign contributions and selection are issues in need of serious dialogue, but said lawyers who donate to a judge’s campaign or to one opposing a judge’s election or retention shouldn’t think their donations will let them pick the judge who will hear their case.
Putting aside Rauner’s jab at trial lawyers, a group that has been very active in the General Assembly and sought out by lawmakers for its position on legally-related legislation, Cooney said he thought the governor’s State of the State speech was “largely empty" and did not contain any specific solutions.
During his roughly 30-minute speech, Rauner outlined a legislative agenda he described as “bold, aggressive and comprehensive” and “very necessary and very doable.” He told lawmakers they wouldn’t like everything in his plan, but urged them to see the big picture and take it as an overall package.
Rauner, the first GOP governor in the state in more than a decade, said Illinois' priority should be on job growth and creating a more business-friendly environment in order to stay competitive with neighboring states.
Playing off the theme of “empowerment” in his speech, Rauner said voters should be able to decide if they want their communities to have so-called “empowerment zones,” in which employees would be able to decide whether to join a union or not.
He also said lawmakers should “empower taxpayers to take control of their property tax bills by giving them greater ability to control local government spending” and have the right to decide whether to consolidate local governments to save money.
"Empowerment," Rauner added, "means giving governments the ability to lower costs by reforming project labor agreements and prevailing wage requirements that block true competitive bidding” and freeing them “from unfunded mandates imposed by the states.”
“Our agenda must be about empowerment, about empowering the people of Illinois to control their futures,” he told lawmakers.
The governor also called for removing the cap on the number of charter schools, increasing funding for education, consolidating the offices of the state comptroller and treasurer, putting a constitutional amendment on the 2016 ballot to create legislative term limits and raising the minimum wage to $10 over a period of seven years.
In a news release sent out shortly after Rauner's speech ended, the ILTA said the speech “should be seen for what it is: a declaration of war against the financial security and prospects of middle and lower income Illinoisans by Rauner and the fellow millionaires and billionaires who put him in office.”
It adds, “The Illinois Trial Lawyers Association wishes Gov. Rauner the best in tackling the state's true challenges, but linking them to unrelated matters is placing extremist ideology and the politics of greed before the best interests of our state’s citizens.”
Levitt said the IDC has not yet reached out to Rauner, but plans to as the defense group continues its goal of becoming more relevant in the development of the state and more involved in the legislature.
Over the past several years, measures supported by the IDC -- including one dealing with comparative fault and several liability that Levitt said will be reintroduced this session-- have been assigned to committees, where they die without receiving any discussion.
The political makeup of the General Assembly, however, isn’t lost on Levitt or Cooney.
While Rauner’s transition report mentions the need for tort reform and he wants to ban trial lawyer donations, Illinois Democrats still hold the majority in both chambers and have control over what proposals go where and when, or if, they get called to a vote.