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Session Recap: Lawmakers pass limits on campaign contributions in judicial races

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(Credit: Blueroomstream.com)
Members of the Illinois Supreme Court are pictured in Springfield.

This year’s races for seats on the Illinois Supreme Court, as well as other judicial races, could come under a new set of campaign finance rules aimed at limiting how much money candidates could raise from so-called “dark money” sources and from individual donors.

In the final hours of the legislative session that wrapped up Saturday morning, state lawmakers approved a bill that limits how much those candidates can raise from nonprofit entities that are not required to disclose the identities of their donors.

The measure still needs approval from Gov. JB Pritzker. It would take effect immediately, meaning it would be in effect for the 2022 election cycle, upon his signature.

The bill also makes a change to “self-funded” campaigns, limiting how much any individual, other than candidates and their immediate family members, may give to a judicial campaign. Current state law allows unlimited contributions if a candidate spends enough to be considered “self-funded.”

Dark money sources played a sizeable role in the 2020 elections when Democrat Thomas Kilbride became the first Illinois Supreme Court justice to lose a retention election since the state adopted the process in 1964.

The Chicago Tribune reported at the time that a record $10.7 million had been poured into the retention campaign between the two sides. Much of the anti-retention funding came from conservative billionaires Ken Griffin and Richard Uihlein, with another $200,000 coming from a dark money group, the Judicial Fairness Project.

“It's critically important that we know who is contributing to campaigns, all the more so for judicial campaigns,” Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, said during a committee hearing Thursday. “People or entities should not be able to mask their contributions by making it through another entity. A quote unquote not-for-profit corporation shouldn't be allowed to amass resources from undisclosed contributors, and then pass that through to candidates, especially in a judicial race.”

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the controversial case Citizens United vs. FEC that corporations and other outside groups could spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns. But Harmon noted that judicial elections have long been held to a different standard, and that states have more leeway to regulate campaign donations and spending in those races than in legislative or gubernatorial races.

Under the bill, House Bill 716, candidates for judicial offices would not be allowed to receive more than $500 during an election cycle from any committee, association, organization or group of people that is not required to disclose its contributors.

The bill adds an enforcement mechanism to a dark-money ban in judicial races that lawmakers passed last year. Under this year’s bill, any contributions above $500 from a source that is not required to disclose its donors would be considered an “anonymous contribution” and would be forfeited to the state.

The bill also exempts judicial races from what is often called the “self-funding” rule in Illinois law that says if a candidate or a member of the candidate’s immediate family contributes or makes a loan to the candidate’s campaign above certain thresholds – $250,000 for statewide offices and $100,000 for all other offices – then all contribution limits are lifted for all candidates in that race.

Under the bill, outside contributions in those races would be subject to a $500,000 limit per a single donor per election cycle.

Additionally, the bill calls for setting up an eight-member Public Financing of Judicial Elections Task Force to study the feasibility of allowing the use of public funds to subsidize judicial campaigns to candidates who agree to adhere to voluntary spending limits. The task force would complete its study by June 30, 2023, and report its findings to the governor and General Assembly.

Former Justice Kilbride’s 3rd District seat was filled by the temporary appointment of Justice Robert Carter, but the seat is up for election to a full 10-year term this year and Carter is not running for it.

Last year, however, the Democratic-controlled General Assembly took the additional step of redrawing Supreme Court and appellate court district lines – the first judicial redistricting since the current constitution was adopted in 1970.

The new district was drawn in a way that takes in Republican Justice Michael J. Burke’s residence. Burke was appointed in 2020 to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Robert Thomas. He will face Democrat Mary K. O’Brien, the only other candidate to file in the race, in the Nov. 8 general election.

That will be a race that could tip the partisan balance on the Supreme Court, where Democrats hold a slim 4-3 majority, and Republicans in the General Assembly accused Democrats of trying to tip the odds in that election in their own favor with the redistricting and campaign finance changes.

Rep. Deanne Mazzochi, R-Elmhurst, said during debate in the House that the “only reason” voters were able to unseat Kilbride is because the outside funds “could actually outweigh, for the first time, the power of the political machine.”

“So what does the political machine here in Illinois decide they want to do? They're going to say, ‘forget that, we're not going to allow that to happen again,’” she said.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

Peter Hancock joined the Capitol News Illinois team as a reporter in January 2019.