Dey col Karmeier

Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier speaks during the unveiling of the Judicial Conference's strategic agenda for the state's courts in October 2019 in Chicago.

Listen to this article

Next year’s presidential election is shaping up as momentous, but recent events have conspired to make the political contests in Illinois even bigger than many initially thought.

Last week, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier announced that he’ll step down in December 2020 after 16 years on the high court. That opens the door to another bruising judicial fight like the one that led to Karmeier’s 2004 election.

That race — Republican Karmeier against Democrat Gordon Maag — set the record for the most spending in American judicial election history. In the end, Karmeier not only won the Fifth District Supreme Court seat, but his supporters also succeeded in defeating Maag’s simultaneous bid for retention to his appellate court seat.

Although it’s early in the process, two candidates — one Democrat and one Republican — appear to be their party’s top choices to make the Supreme Court run.

Fifth District Appellate Justice Judy Cates, a Democrat, confirmed that she’s seriously considering making a run while Republican David Overstreet, Cates’ Fifth District colleague, said he, too, intends to run.

Cates told The News-Gazette that she is having “very serious discussions right now with my family, friends and supporters about this opportunity” but that “running for a position on the Supreme Court requires a complex decision-making process, and I have not yet made the final decision.”

“I anticipate, however, doing so in the near future,” said the 67-year-old Cates, who spent decades in private practice before being elected to the appellate court in 2012.

On the GOP side, the 53-year-old Overstreet is laying the campaign groundwork by making phone calls to tell people of his plans and line up support.

“I am very honored to be able to make the run,” he said.

Overstreet, who lives in Mt. Vernon, was elected as a circuit judge in 2008, retained in 2014 and then assigned to the appellate court in 2017.

Last year, he was elected to the appellate court, which includes the same counties as the Supreme Court’s Fifth District.

The Illinois Supreme Court is made up of seven members elected from five districts — three from the First District, which is just Cook County, and one each from the second through fifth districts.

The Fifth District covers roughly the bottom fourth of Illinois — a 37-county area that people there say runs from “river to river.”

That’s from the Mississippi River along the Missouri border to the Wabash River on the Indiana side.

Karmeier, who recently completed a three-year term as chief justice, took the public by surprise when he announced his plan to leave the court just six years into his second ten-year term. He attributed his decision to his advancing age and desire for “someone younger” to take his place.

“I’m 79 years old and if I stay I’d be 84 when the terms end. I don’t want to be on the court when someone might question whether or not I’m as strong or alert or able to do the job. I’d rather go out when I think I’m still at the top of my game.”

Partisan judicial elections do not come around very often, particularly at the Supreme Court level, because of the nature of judicial races in Illinois.

To reduce the level of traditional political gamesmanship for nonpolitical judicial offices, Illinois law requires judicial candidates to run either as Democrats or Republican in their first election. Once elected to judicial office, the candidates serve a fixed term (six years for circuit judges and 10 years each for appellate and Supreme Courts justices) and then run for any subsequent terms on a retention rather than election basis.

In retention elections, voters are asked a simple “Yes” or “No” question of whether the judge in question should be allowed to remain in office. In Illinois, judges only rarely have not been retained.

Because of the circumstances of his 2004 election, Karmeier is a historic figure in Illinois judicial politics.

Back then, the Fifth District was considered solid Democratic Party turf with its judiciary under the firm control of trial lawyers who turned Madison and St. Clair counties into havens for national class-action lawsuits, including that related to asbestos.

Trial lawyers sought to maintain that status quo, nominating Maag in 2004 as their choice when the late Justice Moses Harrison decided to retire.

Business groups, however, decided to fight and lined up behind Karmeier, then a circuit judge from Washington County, in the Maag/Karmeier showdown.

It was a brutal election fight, with both sides spending a combined record of $9 million-plus.

When Karmeier ran for retention in 2014, trial lawyers ran a last-minute television advertising campaign against him that was intended to deny him the required minimum 60 percent approval rating and almost succeeded in ousting him from the court.

Onetime-solid Democratic Fifth District turf, however, has since moved over into the Republican column.

The six-member Fifth District Appellate Court once was made up of judges who all were elected as Democrats. Now only one justice — Cates — was elected as a Democrat.

That does not mean, however, that Democrats, now the underdogs, won’t go all out to win the Supreme Court seat and spend plenty of money doing it.

That’s what the Jefferson County GOP chairman Richard Stubblefield expects. He said the “political landscape in Southern Illinois has changed drastically,” but there’s no reason not to expect a competitive race.

“You can only assume (it will be) and brace yourself,” he said.

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.