Choose Your Judges

Illinois Chief Justice Under Fire

February 20th, 2013

In some elections, opponents of a sitting Supreme Court Justice will target the incumbent because of one or two controversial decisions—for example, the conservatives who are trying to remove three Iowa Supreme Court justices because of their vote to overturn a ban on same-sex marriages. But voting against a judge because of one specific decision is troubling, for a couple of reasons.

First, although the voter may not agree with one specific high-profile decision by a given judge, there may be dozens of other decisions—less publicized, but no less important—in which the judge made decisions that the voter would agree with. And second, if judges believe that their jobs are in jeopardy based on one controversial decision, they may be overly influenced by poll numbers and decide high-profile cases based on what is popular, rather than exercising their independent interpretation of the applicable law.

But it makes more sense to make a voting decision based on a judge’s pattern of decisions in a certain category of cases that matter to the voter—for example, if the judge consistently votes against criminal defendants in close cases of criminal procedure. In that case, the judge has demonstrated that she tends to interpret a defendant’s rights somewhat narrowly—and a voter can logically assume that the judge will continue to vote that way in the future.

At first, the movement to remove Chief Justice Kilbride from the Illinois Supreme Court appears to be based on the first, flawed motive. Earlier this year, Justice Kilbride joined a four-justice majority that struck down a state law limiting damages in medical malpractice cases—angering business interests and medical special interests alike. Opponents of Justice Kilbride responded by beginning a campaign to unseat him.

But in Kilbride’s case, the drive to oust him is based on more than just one high-profile case. Choose Your Judges has analyzed hundreds of Kilbride’s decisions, focusing on non-unanimous cases, in which reasonable judges can disagree about the interpretation of the applicable law. Over the past nine years, Justice Kilbride has participated in twenty-five non-unanimous personal injury cases, and has voted in favor of the individual plaintiff in sixteen of those cases. Over the same time period, he has participated in six non-unanimous medical malpractice cases, and ruled in favor of the plaintiff in four of those six cases. Thus, when the law is ambiguous or open to interpretation, Justice Kilbride tends to come down on the side of the injured individual rather than the corporation, doctor, or hospital that allegedly caused the injury.

Of course, since Kilbride is a Justice on the Illinois Supreme Court, his votes in these cases affect more than just the parties in the case—when Kilbride joins a majority, he is helping to create a legal precedent which will affect all 13 million citizens of the state of Illinois.

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