Simon Review Paper #15


The Paul Simon Public Policy Institute is pleased to publish this paper from Dr. Stephen L. Wasby who is Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University at Albany-SUNY. Steve, who is a former Professor of Political Science at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, is a nationally recognized expert in the field of constitutional law and judicial processes. In this paper he surveys the various plans for selecting judges utilized by the fifty states. These plans break down broadly into elective versus appointive systems with those who use elections further distinguished by partisan versus non-partisan elections. The most popular plan is the Merit Selection or “Missouri Plan” which originated in our neighboring state. This plan has received much attention lately and it is the one most directly addressed in Wasby’s paper.

In Illinois we use a unique combination of the plans used in other states. Judges in Illinois are first selected through partisan primaries and general elections (although many are initially appointed to an open seat and temporarily hold the position which they subsequently seek by election). The judge who is elected in a partisan contest then must later seek retention to the same position in a subsequent election by “running on his or her record”. They thus do not face another partisan opponent in those retention contests. The retention election is a component of the widely touted Merit Selection Plan which many reformers believe would be a better system for Illinois. The elections for judge have become highly competitive and highly polarized along partisan lines in Illinois. Perhaps the most famous example, and one which has garnered national attention, was the hard found and deeply divisive 2004 contest between Republican Lloyd A. Karmeier and Democrat Gordon E. Maag to represent the fifth judicial district on the Illinois Supreme Court. This race, which Justice Karmeier ultimately won, consumed almost $10 million in campaign donations. The fact that many of these donations, on both sides, came from individuals and interest groups likely to have business before the court, drew much criticism and increased the public’s already jaundiced view of how politics is done in the Prairie State. It also increased interest among many reformers in changing the system, perhaps to a merit plan