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Attorney general candidates clash over SAFE-T Act, public health measures

Attorney General Kwame Raoul and his Republican challenger Thomas DeVore are pictured in a video debate hosted Monday by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors.
Capitol News Illinois
Attorney General Kwame Raoul and his Republican challenger Thomas DeVore are pictured in a video debate hosted Monday by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors.

Raoul, DeVore face off in virtual forum

Attorney General Kwame Raoul accused his Republican challenger Thomas DeVore of making “dangerous” remarks, while DeVore accused the Democratic incumbent of failing the state’s school students by not challenging Gov. JB Pritzker’s COVID-19 mitigations.

The charges and countercharges came during a nearly hourlong debate organized by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors and Capitol News Illinois that was conducted Monday via Zoom.

Raoul, a former state senator from Chicago, is seeking his second term in the AG’s office while DeVore, a southern Illinois attorney in private practice, is trying to unseat him.

DeVore gained notoriety during the COVID-19 pandemic for filing numerous lawsuits, mostly unsuccessful, challenging the governor’s authority to issue multiple disaster declarations and to issue executive orders that included mask mandates and other mitigation measures. Among his clients in those suits was state Sen. Darren Bailey, who is now the GOP nominee for governor.

“I think one of the things we've learned over the course of the last couple of years is that there was a fair question to be asked about the extent of the governor's ability to issue some of those mandates,” DeVore said. “You know, you have some on one side of the conversation say he could absolutely do it. You had some that said he absolutely couldn't. But I think we would all agree as intellectual people there was a fair question.”

Raoul, however, defended his decisions, and his support for Pritzker’s executive orders, saying the state was in the midst of a deadly pandemic and that he, himself, lost friends to the disease.

“I will agree with Mr. DeVore. It was a fair question to ask,” Raoul said. “But how many times you ask it is a fair question too. It was asked and answered multiple times in multiple lawsuits. And the courts’ resources should not have been abused as they were.”

The two also clashed over the role of the attorney general’s office in prosecuting certain crimes, a decision that is traditionally left to locally elected state’s attorneys.

In particular, DeVore has been an outspoken critic of Cook County State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx, arguing that she has refused to bring charges in felony theft cases that involve less than $1,000. He even said of Foxx at the Illinois State Fair, “she better get to prosecuting or we'll find a way to prosecute her,” raising questions about whether he would use the office to target his political opponents.

“It's a very broad statement, and she's not a political opponent of mine,” DeVore said, adding that he believes people in Illinois “are frustrated with elected officials arbitrarily making decisions that don't make any sense to them.”

“Prosecutorial discretion is one thing,” he added. “But when you take prosecutorial discretion to the point that you may be engaging in official misconduct yourself by failing to perform a duty that the law requires you to perform, that's at least a conversation that has to be had, not just with Kim Foxx, but with other public officials.”

Later in the debate, Raoul responded to those comments, as well as other comments he said DeVore has made suggesting he would investigate political opponents.

“Those are dangerous statements, particularly in today's environment,” Raoul said. “There have been prosecutors who have been prosecuted for abusing their authority in political ways, and somebody who will overtly make these statements as a candidate for attorney general should not be let anywhere near the door of the attorney general's office.”

DeVore was also asked about the numerous private lawsuits he has filed against individuals who have criticized him, including one against Pritzker for calling him a “grifter” and one against individuals, including a special education teacher, who criticized him on Facebook after he referred to some students as “window lickers.”

When asked if he would continue engaging in private litigation if he is elected attorney general, Devore insisted he and all other office-seekers have a right to defend themselves against false or unfair accusations.

“So when it rises to the level of it's not just political talk, and it's accusing people of committing crimes and saying other things that impugn their ability to do their job, they have an absolute right to defend themselves,” he said. “Me, the governor, Mr. Raoul and anybody. And to suggest that it has some ulterior motive other than defending your character, I take issue with that.”

Raoul responded that lawyers have a duty not to waste the courts’ resources and that lawyers can be sanctioned for filing “nonmeritorious” lawsuits.

“First off, I don't think we want the courts to be used to stop teachers from being protective of students when somebody's going to do something that I think is just unconscionable,” he said. “The other thing that's important to look at is the outcome of those lawsuits. That lawsuit (against the teacher) was eventually dismissed. Right?”

“You know, Attorney General Raoul, let me just say what you just said on this camera is defamatory because you weren't there,” DeVore fired back. “You don't know anything about it.”

The two candidates were also asked about their positions on the SAFE-T Act, the sweeping criminal justice reform package that lawmakers passed in 2021 that includes, among other things, the elimination of cash bail beginning Jan. 1, 2023.

DeVore has been an outspoken critic of that law, arguing that he believes it is unconstitutional and that the attorney general should have challenged it in court.

“We now have over 50 state’s attorneys in the state of Illinois who are now doing, for all intents and purposes, the attorney general's job in bringing causes of action on numerous counts that it's unconstitutional,” DeVore said. “It is in fact unconstitutional.”

Devore’s constitutional claims center on the law’s detainability standards.

The law says the decision to detain someone in jail pending trial will be based on factors other than the defendant’s ability to post a cash bond, such as the severity of the crime, the defendant’s likelihood of fleeing prosecution and whether they pose a risk to other individuals or the community.

Raoul conceded that there are parts of the law that he thinks need to be clarified, and he said lawmakers are in conversations about that in advance of the upcoming veto session, which begins Nov. 15. But he said one of the jobs of the attorney general is to defend the laws of the state against constitutional challenges, and he would do so for the SAFE-T Act.

“My obligation as a lawyer in general is towards justice,” Raoul said. “And so if the evidence is such, or the law is such, that I would have to concede unconstitutionality, I would have a conversation with my client, and we'd have to do so. I don't believe that's the case here.”

The full video of the debate can be found here.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government that is 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. Email: phancock@capitolnewsillinois.com