Justices took cash from groups tied to pension law

SPRINGFIELD – The potential arbiters of Illinois’ pension-reform law have collected nearly $3 million in campaign contributions during the past 13 years from groups that support both sides of the issue, according to a published report.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported Thursday that most of the money was collected by one justice, Thomas Kilbride, in a 2010 campaign to retain his seat that was the nation’s most expensive of that type in a quarter-century.

Still, if a legal challenge to the newly minted pension-reform law reaches the high court, it will be decided by seven justices, six of whom have accepted campaign contributions from one or both sides of the debate: labor unions, business groups or a political fund operated by House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Madigan, a powerful Chicago Democrat, said last month the initiative could not have passed without his ability to persuade members of the House. A number of business groups have said they support the law, while public employee unions oppose it, saying it violates a part of the state constitution.

“Even the most honorable justice has to acknowledge this looks bad. It puts them in a bad light,” David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, told the newspaper.

The Illinois Constitution calls for the election of judges and, in the case of Supreme Court justices, retention campaigns after each 10-year term. Elections cost money.

There is no legal limit on campaign contributions to judges, but the Judicial Code of Conduct prohibits them from personally soliciting or accepting contributions – a task left to campaign committees.

“Politics plays no role in any of the issues that we have before us,” Chief Justice Rita Garman said in a December interview with Chicago Lawyer magazine. “If a legislative challenge goes up or down, [it’s] based on whether it meets the standards of our Constitution. And I think our court will analyze it that way.”

A court spokesman reiterated Garman’s message but had no other comment on the matter Thursday.

The newspaper said that during his 2010 retention campaign, Kilbride, a Democrat and former chief justice, took in $1.47 million from the Democratic Party of Illinois, controlled by Madigan. His initial 2000 race benefited from $688,000 from the party. Another $583,000 in 2010 came from unions now opposed to the pension changes.

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown noted the judicial code rules on fundraising but would not comment further because of the litigation underway.

Republican Lloyd Karmeier won his 2004 race for the court with help from $266,000 in contributions from four major business groups, each of which lobbied in favor of the pension law Quinn signed.

Only Justice Bob Thomas appears not to have accepted contributions from any group with an interest in the law, according to the newspaper.

The justices aren’t affected by pension changes. The Judges Retirement System was the only one of five pension accounts carved out of the bill. In response to a question by Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, Madigan said during House debate the reason for that was to eliminate the possibility of conflict if the judicial system reviews a lawsuit.

“If it’s a conflict for judges to be in the pension bill,” Brady said this week, “then it’s a conflict they’re taking money from the groups they’ll make rulings about.”