January 24, 2006

Senator Raoul discusses blacks in the courts

State Senator Kwame Raoul, alongside Citizen Action/Illinois and the Illinois Campaign for political reform, hosted a panel discussion on the black experience in the courts on Monday night in Ida Noyes Hall. The discussion, entitled “African-Americans’ Experience in the Courts,” addressed difficulties faced by blacks running for judicial office.

The talk focused on the promotion of the Supreme Court Campaign Reform Act of 2005, which recently passed the state senate under the sponsorship of Raoul, but has yet to be passed by the House of Representatives.

Panelists addressed the issue of disproportionate funding limiting the success of black and other minority candidates in judicial elections. Panelists agreed that money was necessary to be successful on today’s electoral races, but that it was not the only thing necessary.

“You cannot win without money, but money can’t get you elected,” said Ellis Reed, retired appellate court justice, succinctly summarizing the view of the panel.

The new bill advocated by Raoul intends to level the playing field of state Supreme Court elections. Under the Supreme Court Campaign Reform Act of 2005, candidates running for state Supreme Court would be eligible to receive a grant of $750,000 from the Supreme Court Democracy Trust Fund provided that he or she raise a certain number of “qualifying contributions.” A candidate who received the grant would be required not to accept any further campaign contributions. This would give candidates with lesser means the opportunity get their message out, and hopefully minimize the effect of interest groups and corporations in swaying judicial elections.

Raoul acknowledged the limitations of the bill, which will not go so far as to guarantee equal spending among candidates. “It’s just a vehicle to make candidates who should be viable, viable,” he said.

Raoul emphasized that state Supreme Courts will become increasingly important because the federal Supreme Court is likely to become more conservative with the appointment of new Supreme Court Justices, and many important issues will be put back on the playing field at the state level. No one expects the bill to purge the Illinois judicial system of racial inequity. “It’s not just about diversifying the bench; it’s about getting special interest money out of determining who gets on the bench,” Raoul said.