Merit choice for Illinois high court all about clout

Merit choice for Illinois high court all about clout

Change, once again, is coming to the Illinois Supreme Court. But while some people naively lament the politics that goes into electing justices, the latest personnel change demonstrates the shadowy maneuvering that accompanies what's called the merit appointment process.

Former chief Justice Mary Ann McMorrow, a truly admirable female pioneer in the law, announced this week that she's retiring from the court on July 6. At age 76 and having served nearly 14 years on the high court, McMorrow said she wants to enjoy life and work on her rehabilitation after having knee replacement surgery. That's all well and good.

But in announcing her resignation, McMorrow also states that that she will be replaced by appellate court Justice Anne Burke, a politically connected Chicago Democrat and the wife of powerful Chicago Alderman Ed Burke. Further, Burke intends to run for election to the high court seat in 2008.

The Burke appointment continues the relatively new and unfortunate process of retiring justices trying to select their successors rather than leaving it to the voters.

That was not the court's practice until former 2nd District Justice John Nichols resigned from the court in 1998 and tried to arrange for S. Louis Rathje to replace him on a permanent basis. Voters didn't buy that maneuver. Current Chief Justice Bob Thomas defeated Rathje in a 2000 Republican primary election.

Since then, former Justices Moses Harrison, Ben Miller and now McMorrow have engaged in similar maneuvers. Harrison's appointee, Phil Rarick, became ill and decided not to run. He was replaced by Justice Lloyd Karmeier, who won the 2004 election from the court's 5th District.

Miller was successful, naming Rita Garman as his replacement. She was later elected in her own right.

At any rate, the trend is clear as is it regrettable.

While widely praised for her work, the 62-year-old Burke came late to the law and was a relatively inexperienced lawyer when she was appointed by McMorrow to the appellate court in 1995. But, with the right political patrons, a lawyer need not have much experience to become an influential judge.

Since her appointment to the appellate court, Burke has been a Supreme Court justice in waiting. Last week, that wait came to an end.

It remains to be seen how the politics of the Burke appointment play in Cook County, where ethnic divisions can produce fierce political fights. But soon-to-be Illinois Supreme Court Justice Burke not only will have her strong political ties but a two-year head start and the power of incumbency as she strives to win the seat on her own.

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