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4 Democrats, 1 Republican seek Supreme Court seat

Published: Saturday, March 17, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

CHICAGO – The four Democrats running this year to represent Cook County on the Illinois Supreme Court speak of the importance of maintaining decorum when deciding the state's highest legal issues.

But vacancies are rare and there's much at stake, so it's not surprising that the primary race to fill the spot of retired Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald has featured ample campaign spending, television ads and polite but pointed sniping about everything from endorsements to Chicago's mayoral race.

In 2010, Justice Mary Jane Theis was appointed to serve out the rest of Fitzgerald's term, but challenging her for a full 10-year stint are two appellate judges – Aurelia Pucinski, a former Cook County circuit court clerk with name recognition and a history of being a political spoiler, and Joy Cunningham, who would be the first black female on the high court. Also running is attorney Thomas Flannigan, who is setting himself apart by refusing to take campaign contributions, saying he'll be "beholden only to justice."

Judge James Riley is running unopposed in the Republican primary.

Judicial candidates must be careful not to take public stands on issues they may have to later weigh in on, so in order to differentiate themselves, the current crop has made it personal, swiping at each other over endorsements, recusals and money.

Pucinski and others have suggested that Theis should've recused herself from deciding whether Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel could keep his spot on the ballot after a residency challenge last year, noting that Theis and Emanuel live in the same Chicago neighborhood. Theis countered that before the case, she'd only met Emanuel twice – when he brought his children to trick-or-treat at her home. The court ruled 7-0 in Emanuel's favor.

Theis has raised more than $1 million and has multiple TV commercials in heavy rotation. The former appellate court judge, who is the Democratic Party's preferred candidate, boasts endorsements from Emanuel, former Mayor Richard Daley and the Chicago Tribune. She is the only judicial candidate to be rated "Highly Qualified" by the Chicago Council of Lawyers.

"I've been very honored by the broad base of support that I've received," she said.

Pucinski, who has raised far less money, has objected to mailings from anti-abortion organization Personal PAC, which endorses Theis and refers to Pucinski as "not trustworthy." Pucinski complains that issue-oriented groups should stay out of judicial races.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me," said Pucinski, who has beat the Democrats' preferred candidates in other races. The daughter of former Chicago Alderman Roman Pucinski said the high court "is the last place you can go if something is just totally messed up where you can try and get justice ... and that's a marvelous calling."

Winning provides not only the prestige of serving on the state's highest court but also the opportunity to decide influential cases on pressing issues, ranging from the mortgage foreclosure crisis to pension reform. Justices are also responsible for the administration of the state's legal system, including the bar exam and attorney discipline.

Theis insists fundraising is necessary to get her message out to voters. Even with the endorsements, she can't match the name recognition of Pucinski, who served as Clerk of the Circuit Court from 1988 to 2000.

Pucinski has voluntarily limited her campaign contributions and has criticized the amount of money her opponents have raised from law firms and attorneys. She has downplayed the importance of endorsements and bar evaluations.

Cunningham, who's raised about half as much as Theis, said the fundraising is crucial to combat a clubby judicial system she described as "designed to keep the insiders in and the outsiders out."

While judicial races are rarely the biggest draw on ballot, the candidates are quick to note that almost every voter will come into contact with the court system at some point in their lives. The court's seven justices are elected from five judicial districts across the state. Three seats are set aside for Cook County and the other four districts get one each.

The court currently has four Democrats and three Republicans, four men and three women.

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