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Kilbride Retention Race Could Impact Partisan Swing Of IL Supreme Court

Illinois Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider holds a news conference urging a "no" vote on Justice Thomas Kilbride's retention outside the Peoria County Courthouse, Sept. 22, 2020.
Tim Shelley / Peoria Public Radio
Illinois Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider holds a news conference urging a "no" vote on Justice Thomas Kilbride's retention outside the Peoria County Courthouse, Sept. 22, 2020.

Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride is asking voters to retain him for another 10-year term in November. The results of that race could have an impact on the partisan lean of the state's highest court for years to come.

Kilbride is a Rock Island Democrat first elected to the high court in 2000. He's the only downstate representative in the court's narrow 4-3 Democratic majority.

The 3rd Judicial District Kilbride represents covers 21 counties in central, north-central, and western Illinois, including Peoria, Tazewell, Rock Island, LaSalle, Stark, Knox, McDonough, and Marshall. Kilbride must gain at least 60% of votes in his retention race on Nov. 3 to keep his seat. A new election would be called in the 2022 election cycle if Kilbride comes out on the wrong end of that retention vote.

Illinois Republicans are ramping up their efforts to unseat Kilbride in an effort to potentially swing the court's partisan balance.

"We would hope that that would perhaps go to a Republican," said Illinois Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider of the potential 3rd Judicial District race. "And then we'd like to see them take up term limits, pension reform, fair maps."

Kilbride cast votes against each of those issues when they've come up before the state Supreme Court. While the decisions against legislative term limits and reducing state worker pension benefits were unanimous, the last decision on an independent redistricting commission calling the shots was struck down on a partisan 4-3 split.

During a campaign press conference earlier this month, Kilbride defended his most recent vote on redistricting.

"That was a majority decision that was based on court precedent that dictated that result," he said. "And in fact, the opinion made it very clear that a decision or a plan would not be unconstitutional. That plan was constitutionally defective."

Schneider, speaking at a news conference Tuesday outside the Peoria County Courthouse, said the Illinois Republican Party hopes to launch a "grassroots" initiative to build momentum to deny Kilbride retention, rather than vie directly against him dollar-for-dollar.

"We never have as much money as Democrats," Schneider said. "But what we have is truth and justice on our side."

Several prominent central Illinois Republicans have lined up against Kilbride's retention, including former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood; U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Peoria; state Reps. Keith Sommer, R-Morton, and Ryan Spain, R-Peoria, and state Sen. Chuck Weaver, R-Peoria.

But a handful of area Republicans are endorsing Kilbride's retention. They include Marshall County State's Attorney Paul Bauer and LaSalle County Sheriff Tom Templeton.

“Some issues transcend partisanship, and that’s particularly the case when it comes to my support for Supreme Court Justice Tom Kilbride,” Templeton said in a statement. “My endorsement of Justice Kilbride is based on his record of treating everyone who comes before the court fairly and with the utmost respect for the rights our state and federal constitutions endow them."

Peoria County State's Attorney Jodi Hoos, a Democrat, and Tazewell County District Judge Stephen Kouri also are endorsing Kilbride's retention.

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Tim Shelley is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.