Attorneys critical of state poll

One claims system not fair toward women

Thursday, February 23, 2006

GALESBURG - One local judicial candidate said the state bar poll released Wednesday is flawed and not fair toward women.

The advisory poll is conducted by mail, sent to all Illinois State Bar Association members in the circuit. Candidates are rated "recommended" or "not recommended" based on whether those responding agree the candidate "meets acceptable requirements for office." A score of 65 percent or more in that category is required for recommendation.

One Democrat and two Republicans - of nine candidates running for nomination as Knox County Circuit Court Resident Judge were "recommended" in the poll.

"With three out of nine being recommended, I think the number of candidates running has adversely affected the (method) that is commonly used by the Illinois State Bar Association," Knox County Public Defender Jim Harrell said.

"I think that skewed the polls," he said, because supporters of one candidate could adversely rate another.

Candidates are graded in seven other areas, ranging from integrity to legal ability. Republican Kim Norton scored more than 65 percent in all categories - mostly from the mid-70s - but received a score of 62.5 in meeting the requirements of the office, just short of recommendation.

"Apparently they don't want a woman on the bench," Norton said, charging that only a few women were recommended in the entire state.

Although 188 ballots were mailed and 127 returned, attorneys were told not to rate those whose work they didn't know. Norton said 44 attorneys returning ballots did not rate her abilities and only 24 felt she should not be recommended.

"It was such a tiny, little number to tip the scale ," she said. "I'm not sure it's an accurate representation of my qualifications.

Robert K. Downs of Chicago, the president of the ISBA, said if a candidate is not recommended it does not mean he or she isn't competent as an attorney.

"I hope voters will consider these results along with other information, such as media endorsements, in deciding how to vote for these important public offices," Downs said.

The current resident judge, Harry Bulkeley, is retiring from the bench in December, leading to an extraordinary degree of interest in the position. As a result, the bar poll received more scrutiny than normal.

Republican Sherry Lawson-Sanchez said the poll "can be misleading. ..." She said most colleagues she spoke with said they were not even aware the poll was being conducted.

"By nature, attorneys are often placed in adversarial situations with each other," she said. "Unfortunately, that may carry over when one attorney has the opportunity to anonymously evaluate another attorney. ... I fight hard for my clients, and I do not hesitate to bring unethical practices of other attorneys to the attention of the court. I am sure I have made some individuals unhappy along the way, but I do my job well and always consider what is in the best interest of my client and the public as well."

Bill Butts focused on positive factors.

"I was very pleased with my marks on diversity/sensitivity," he said. "I was also pleased with my integrity mark. I guess all I can say is I can't get every endorsement."

David McCrery III made light of the poll, in which 7.69 percent of participants said he meets the requirements of the office.

In other elections, McCrery said, voters ignored the association's poll. In 2002, for example, Third Appellate Court judicial candidate Dawn Conolly, a Democrat, was not recommended by the Illinois State Bar Association's poll. Still, she won the primary election.

Cases like Conolly's shape McCrery's perspective.

"It's a non-issue for me," he said. "The only thing I'm focused on is the Democratic primary."

Candidates recommended had a slightly different view. Democrat Scott Shipplett said, "It's especially important to me because (attorneys) are my peers who are able to make an informed judgment of my qualifications."

He added, however, "I don't think citizens should base their votes simply on the poll, but it is an important and relevant factor."

Karl Johnson, a Republican, was somewhat in the same boat as Norton. He scored more than 65 percent in all categories except legal ability. Most of his marks were in the 90 percent range with 100 percent for health. The difference? He was recommended.

"I'm happy and proud of the fact that I'm recommended," Johnson said. "I am sure any of the candidates can assume the responsibility whether they're recommended or not."

Steve Watts, another Republican, was not recommended. He said 59 who returned ballots rated his abilities.

"When you try to get a pattern, I'm not sure I could figure out a pattern," Watts said. "I was recommended in all areas, except two."

One, 64.1 for temperament, was just short of 65 percent.

"There's good reasons why bar associations don't choose judges," he said.

Republican John Rehn, said, "obviously I'm pleased with the poll. It's an honor to be recognized by your peers. ... This would be the activity that is the best indicator of what type of judge we'll be. ... This provides comparisons from people who are in the trenches with us on a daily basis."

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