Change in chief justices not likely to produce other significant changes at IL Supreme Court, experts say

By Taryn Phaneuf | Nov 22, 2016

Justice Lloyd Karmeier’s selection as chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court won’t have much effect on the way the court makes decisions, political scientists in the state say.

SPRINGFIELD — Justice Lloyd Karmeier’s selection as the next chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court won’t have much effect on the way the court makes decisions, political scientists in the state say.

Chief justice of the state’s highest court is primarily an administrative position, said Jason Pierceson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois - Springfield.

“The court still maintains its split of four Democrats and three Republicans,” Pierceson said. “Because the terms are short — three years — chief justices are likely not as concerned with the long-term standing of the court, beyond the concern of the other justices. This is different from the U.S. Supreme Court, an institution with much more visibility and possessing a chief justice who is generally more concerned with the political standing of the court, and who may take a more proactive role in shaping decisions.”

Karmeier, a Republican, was unanimously elected to the office by his fellow justices and will serve a three-year term that began Oct. 26. He succeeded Justice Rita B. Garman, also a Republican, whose tenure as chief justice ended Oct. 25. The Illinois Supreme Court runs the state's court system.

The fact that the Illinois Supreme Court has elected two Republican chief justices in a row while being politically left-leaning demonstrates the point that the role isn’t as political as the U.S. Supreme Court, said Christopher Mooney, director of the University of Illinois - Springfield political science department.

“If it was a very important policy position, then it seems unlikely that the majority would vote for somebody in the minority to do it,” Mooney said.

A shift in the court’s partisanship would have a much more significant impact than selecting a new chief justice, Pierceson said. He said he doesn’t see any radical difference between Garman and Karmeier that will affect the court.

“Both are Republicans, but party does not affect the administrative duties as much as it influences court decisions,” he said. “In terms of the politics of the court, Karmeier has been a more polarizing figure than Garman, but his new role will not provide any new legal or political leverage.”

The announcement that Karmeier would serve as chief justice came on the heels of a September decision by U.S. District Judge David Herndon to certify a class action in a high-stakes racketeering case against State Farm and others, involving allegations centering on the election of Karmeier in 2004.

Plaintiffs in Hale v. State Farm have asked Herndon to restore a $1 billion judgment they received in the case of  Avery v. State Farm. Plaintiffs claimed the defendants conspired to elect Karmeier to the Supreme Court to secure a sympathetic vote to overturn Avery.

Karmeier was first elected to the state Supreme Court in 2004 and was retained to a second 10-year term in 2014 by voters in the Fifth Judicial District, which includes the state’s 37 southernmost counties. He is a lifelong resident of Washington County. According to a September news release from the Supreme Court announcing his selection, Karmeier indicated he would continue the court’s ongoing initiatives to expand access to justice and adopt a statewide system for electronic filing.

“I appreciate the confidence shown by the other members of the court in electing me to this position,” Karmeier said in the release. “Since joining the court in 2004, I have had the privilege of serving under five different chief justices, all of whom have done an outstanding job. I will do my very best to live up to the high standard they have set.”

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