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In survey, attorneys rate McFarland higher than Knapp in judicial primary race

Knapp McFarland
McLean County State's Attorney Don Knapp will face Judge Amy McFarland for a circuit judgeship in the Eleventh Judicial Circuit in the June 28 Republican primary.

Attorneys with the Illinois State Bar Association have issued a "not recommended" rating for one of the candidates for 11th Judicial Circuit judge in McLean County.

Don Knapp is also the state's attorney, but only 54.02% of the respondents to the judicial advisory poll said they think Knapp meets the requirements of office. The minimum threshold for a "recommended" rating is 65%. In contrast, Knapp's opponent, Associate Judge Amy McFarland, received a rating of 90.74% in that category.

Judge Carla Barnes is the other McLean County judicial candidate rated in the survey. 86.36% of the respondents said they think Barnes is qualified to be a judge. Barnes does not have an opponent.

Tom McClure, the head of Illinois State University's legal studies program, said most judicial candidates are recommended each year, though a "not recommended" rating happens not infrequently around the state."

Illinois State University Professor Tom McClure launched a pilot expungement clinic last fall. The program is set to continue, with funding from the University Provost and an endowment McClure started.
Illinois State University Department of Politics & Government
Tom McClure, the head of Illinois State University's legal studies program.

"Typically, if someone is a sitting judge, they tend to be recommended. It would take some pretty extreme circumstances before a sitting judge is not going to be recommended. So the fact that both of the sitting judges who are running in this upcoming election were recommended is not a surprise," said McClure.

McClure said it is less common for a judicial candidate who is already serving in another public office to be "not recommended." But even there exceptions happen.

"This is not unusual, necessarily, as a state's attorney. Sometimes people view that office as being a political office. And that being the case, they would question whether someone who's the state's attorney is impartial or not. That shows up on Mr. Knapp's polling. There are questions as to his impartiality," said McClure.

The impartiality category had 57.83% of respondents approving of Knapp's impartiality. The figures are 87.85% for McFarland and 84.88% for Barnes.

Other categories surveyed include: integrity, legal ability, temperament, court management, health, and sensitivity. Knapp scored higher in those than in impartiality and meeting the requirements for office, but McFarland ranked higher than Knapp in every category but health, where they differed by a fraction of a point.

"There's no relationship between what an attorney scores on any of the factors and the other ones. They're independent votes. This is a situation where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts," said McClure.

The survey percentages are based on yes responses to each question and do not include no-opinion responses.

The number of responses to Knapp was 88. The number of survey responses to McFarland was 108. McClure said that difference is not necessarily significant.

"The first question that the attorneys have to answer is whether they've got familiarity with the candidate. If they have no familiarity with the candidate, then they no longer are participating in the poll. The likelihood of knowing a sitting judge is greater than someone who is a non-judge. A second reason, although the poll is sent to everyone in the 11th Judicial Circuit who is registered with the attorney registration commission, you can ask for a ballot, if you want to vote in that election. I would assume that there would be attorneys who are from outside the 11th circuit, who would appear before Judge McFarland and could ask for a ballot. And so I wouldn't read anything into the fact that Judge McFarland got more survey responses than anyone else," said McClure.

Opinions expressed in the ISBA poll, which was released this week, are those of the attorneys who chose to respond, and their opinions do not reflect the opinions of the ISBA or the opinions of all Illinois attorneys.

How candidates respond

There are standard lines of response to bar association surveys in each election cycle, that emphasize the relative positions and backgrounds of the candidates, if they are viewed highly or are "not recommended."

"Usually, what happens is that the candidate will say that the lawyers have chosen who they want to decide their cases. And my goal is to represent the people fairly. And just because the lawyers want someone doesn't necessarily mean that they're the best judge for the people. So they would use this as a positive in their campaign, as opposed to a negative. Whereas, the candidate who receives the 'recommended' is going to say I got the highest rating," said McClure.

And Knapp's response when contacted by WGLT bore out that thought.

"I've never worried about my popularity among lawyers," said Knapp.

Knapp also drew a parallel to former state's attorney and now retired Judge Charles Reynard who ran for and was elected Judge in 2002. Reynard's survey result on the question about his qualifications was, like Knapp's, 54%. Twenty years ago Reynard won.

"And the adversarial nature of our job (head prosecutor) has only increased in that time," said Knapp.

Knapp went on to draw a contrast between him and Judge McFarland in their bases of support. Police agency leaders and a police union have tended to endorse Knapp.

"... shows the universal support I have from those that arrest criminals. My opponent clearly has more support from those who defend criminals," said Knapp.

Meanwhile Judges, retired members of the bench, and members of the legal community have tended to endorse McFarland.

"The bar association survey reflects the experiences and qualities Judge McFarland has to continue serving," said John Kim, a representative of the Citizens to Elect Judge Amy McFarland Committee.

In harsher terms, surrogates for Knapp have painted McFarland as soft on crime and surrogates for McFarland have pointed to Knapp's lack of extensive courtroom experience.

"Judge McFarland has demonstrated experience in presiding over family court. It's important for a judge to have trial experience, to know how to manage a courtroom, and for citizens and litigants to know they will be treated fairly without any bias," said Kim.

Such surrogates often shape the races because judicial candidates have ethical limits on what they can say about issues that may come before them.

McClure said judicial races are often low profile and low-information, meaning voters don't know much about the candidates when they go to the polls. He said the biggest factor in this judicial race will be turnout. And with a hotly contested primary race for governor, he said turnout may be higher than usual, which makes it crucial for both McFarland and Knapp to get their names out. He said the bar association survey is only one data point and urges voters to talk to people in the community who know the candidates well.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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