Tort Reformers Score Victories in Midwest Judicial Races

November 22, 2004

President Bush wasn’t the only big winner on election night. Tort reformers and insurers also saw some of their favored Midwestern judicial candidates score with the voters.

Big business beat trial lawyers in a nasty Illinois Supreme Court race that shattered state and national campaign spending records and cut into the Democratic majority on the court. With 93 percent of precincts reporting unofficial results, Republican Lloyd Karmeier had 55 percent of the vote and Democrat Gordon Maag captured 45 percent.

Karmeier said he regretted the negative tone of the race and the millions of dollars spent, and he hopes it acts as a “catalyst for change” in the way judicial races are financed and conducted. “Basically that’s obscene for a judicial race,” Karmeier said. “What does it gain people? How can people have faith in the system?”

Maag did not return calls seeking comment. The contest in the sprawling, 37-county 5th District–which includes the infamous “judicial hellhole” of Madison County–took on much greater political significance than past high court campaigns. Business groups, doctors, trial lawyers and others ponied up more than $8.5 million to help the candidate they believed would be most friendly to them on such contentious issues as tort reform and medical malpractice.

Trial lawyers who oppose most tort reform efforts backed Maag, an appellate court justice for the past decade. Doctor and insurance groups pushing for limits on costly lawsuits supported Karmeier, a circuit judge since 1986. Karmeier ran strongly throughout the district, including the traditionally Democratic strongholds of St. Clair and Madison counties.

His win narrowed the court’s Democratic majority to 4-3–a potentially important difference in some high-profile cases. After Karmeier is sworn in, the state Supreme Court is due to take up Philip Morris USA’s appeal of a $10.1 billion damage award against the tobacco giant stemming from a Madison County case.

Karmeier credited the win to strong support from voters upset with the judicial system in Madison County, which has been heavily criticized for large jury awards in some cases and has been home to a Supreme Court justice for decades. Karmeier lives in Nashville in Washington County, while Maag lives in Glen Carbon in Madison County.

“I think there is a message being sent,” Karmeier said shortly after declaring victory. The two spent at least $7.6 million of the $8.5 million they raised, eclipsing the previous national and state spending records. The old spending record for an Illinois judicial race was about $3.2 million; the national record was $4.4 million, set in Alabama in 1996.

Despite vowing in August to avoid negative campaigning and agreeing to let a special committee act as ethical policeman, the candidates and their political allies used their unprecedented cash to sling mud. TV ads painted each judge as soft on crime and less qualified than their opponent. The ethics committee rebuked both candidates’ tactics, but the campaigns simply blamed each other for misleading ads and kept up the attacks.

Maag also lost his seat on the appellate court. Karmeier will now get to appoint his replacement.

Michigan, Ohio stand pat
Meanwhile, the conservative Michigan Supreme Court’s balance remains 5-2 in favor of Republican nominees after voters re-elected two incumbents. As expected, Democratic nominee Marilyn Kelly and Republican nominee Stephen Markman retained their seats Tuesday. With 97 percent of precincts reporting, Kelly had 2,072,793 votes, or 35 percent. Markman had 1,630,120 votes, or 27 percent. Kelly and Markman will serve eight-year terms on the court.

The Supreme Court’s makeup has been 5-2 in favor of Republican nominees for nearly six years. The Supreme Court ballot is nonpartisan, but political parties select the candidates. The candidates stressed core judicial beliefs during the campaign, a relatively calm race compared with the nasty 2000 election.
In Ohio, Republicans solidified their year-old voting majority on the Ohio Supreme Court early Wednesday, but the races were closer than the vast campaign fund-raising advantage over Democratic rivals would indicate. The departure of Francis Sweeney, 70, who must leave because of age limits, created the only open seat in the election. Republican Judith Ann Lanzinger, a Toledo appeals court judge, defeated Democrat Nancy Fuerst, a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court judge.

Lanzinger’s campaign touted her 19 years experience on the bench at the municipal, county and appellate level compared with her opponent’s seven years as a judge. With 95 percent of precincts reporting early Wednesday, Lanzinger had 57 percent of the vote to 43 percent for Fuerst. Voters also re-elected Republican Chief Justice Thomas Moyer and GOP appointee Terrence O’Donnell, who each raised more than 10 times the contributions of their opponents.

With 95 percent of precincts reporting, Moyer won his fourth six-year term with 53 percent of the vote to 47 percent for Democrat C. Ellen Connally, a retired Cleveland municipal judge; and O’Donnell, a former Cleveland judge, beat appeals court Judge William O’Neill of Warren, 60 percent to 40 percent. Before O’Donnell was appointed last year, two moderate Republicans often joined Democrats in 4-3 decisions criticized by business groups. Recent rulings have gone largely 4-3 in favor of insurance companies and other businesses.

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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