CHICAGO - Showing the high-stakes nature of the state’s Supreme Court races, Gov. J.B. Pritzker has dipped into a trust fund to contribute to two Democratic judicial candidates in races that could reshape the Illinois Supreme Court — a decision Republicans say is skirting contribution limits the governor set himself.
All eyes in the political world are on the Second Supreme Court District, where former Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran is running against Democrat Elizabeth "Liz" Rochford, a Lake County judge — and in the Third Supreme Court District, where Appellate Justice Mary Kay O’Brien, also a former Democratic state legislator, faces appointed Supreme Court Justice Michael J. Burke.
Pritzker on Sept. 23 contributed $500,000 each to the candidates from his campaign fund. And on Oct. 28, the Democratic governor contributed another $500,000 each to Rochford and O’Brien — this time from a personal trust fund called the Jay Robert Pritzker Revocable Trust, records show.
In addition to the contributions, Pritzker has also walked precincts for the Democratic candidates — seven times with O’Brien and four with Rochford, his campaign said.
But Republicans accuse the governor of some fancy footwork.
At issue is a measure the governor signed into law earlier this year that caps contributions to judicial candidates to $500,000 from "any single person."
But the Illinois State Board of Elections says Pritzker’s multiple contributions are allowed.
"We have always treated trusts as separate entities," state board of elections spokesman Matt Dietrich said in an email. "Absent a complaint alleging otherwise, we would not consider this a violation."
Pritzker’s generosity — and the GOP’s objections — should come as no surprise.
Both parties across the state are zeroing in on the two Chicago area judicial races. Republicans need to win both to take the court majority, while Democrats need just one to preserve their 4-3 advantage. The Illinois Supreme Court has had a Democratic majority since 1970.
Democrats are campaigning hard on the need to preserve abortion rights in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning of Roe v. Wade.
And there’s already a pending legal challenge to the state’s latest legislation on the issue that the newly elected Illinois Supreme Court could decide. And many Republicans are focusing on the criminal justice reform law known as the SAFE-T Act, which goes into effect on Jan. 1 — but is expected to see legislative changes during the post-election veto session. The Illinois Supreme Court is consolidating 58 lawsuits challenging the SAFE-T Act, with the cases to be heard in Kankakee County.
Speaking outside Daley Plaza on Tuesday morning, former Kane County State’s Attorney Joseph McMahon said Pritzker’s latest contribution shows a concerted effort by the governor and top Democrats to "control the election to the Illinois Supreme Court."
"This is nothing more than an attempt to skirt the judicial campaign contributions limits that the governor himself signed into law five months ago," the Republican said.
McMahon said contributions from Pritzker, Illinois House Speaker Emanuel "Chris" Welch and Illinois Senate President Don Harmon are eroding public confidence in judicial independence and impartiality.
"Our three branches of government are designed to serve as checks and balances on each other," McMahon said. "Unfortunately, the multi-million dollars bankroll from the governor and the leaders of the General Assembly serve to skew that balance and are a disservice to the people of Illinois in the Second and Third Districts especially."
The Illinois Republican Party says Democratic lawmakers have poured more than $3.5 million into the two races.
But there’s plenty of money on the other side. Billionaire Ken Griffin contributed $6.25 million in April to the independent expenditure committee, Citizens for Judicial Fairness, before he moved to Florida. That money — along with funds from another independent expenditure committee, Fair Courts America — are being used to pay for TV ads attacking O’Brien and Rochford.
Records show Democrat Rochford has $1,862,013.63 cash on hand, with Republican Curran trailing with $450,553.82. And Democrat O’Brien has $1,461,649.78, with Republican Burke at $721,753.51 in the waning days of the campaign.
Representatives of Pritzker’s campaign, Welch and Harmon declined to comment about the GOP criticism of their contributions.