Illinois Supreme Court justice faces big-money opposition in bid for retention

An Illinois Supreme Court justice seeking retention again is embroiled in a big-money campaign, this time with a group of plaintiffs' attorneys contributing more than $1 million in hopes of ousting the Republican they accuse of being partial to corporate interests.

Voters in Illinois' 37 southernmost counties will decide Nov. 4 whether Lloyd Karmeier of southern Illinois' Okawville keeps the Illinois Supreme Court seat he won in 2004 after a tight race that cost the two candidates more than $9 million, shattering state and national spending records for a judicial seat. On Tuesday, at least 60 percent of the voters must side with him if he's to win.

Now hoping to unseat Karmeier, several attorneys and law firms have formed an anti-Karmeier "Campaign for 2016" that since being launched on Oct. 16 has collected more than $1 million, state campaign-finance records show. The name of the group is Campaign for 2016 even though it is campaigning against Karmeier in 2014. Those funds have helped fund television commercials, robocalls and mailings that label the justice as too tight with big business.

Karmeier's campaign manager, Ron Deedrick, on Tuesday accused the Campaign for 2016 of "trying to buy this southern Illinois seat, seeing this as an investment" in hopes of influencing who is chosen to replace Karmeier. If voters retain Karmeier, Deedrick said, those seeking his ouster could argue that he should recuse himself from their cases because they spent millions against him.

"This particular Supreme Court seat represents a third of the counties of Illinois and a large swath of the judiciary," Deedrick said. "The ads, mailers and robocalls (opposing Karmeier) just smack of the ugliness being employed by the Campaign for 2016. They're doing everything in their power to smear the integrity and fairness of an otherwise honorable man."

Illinois State Board of Elections records show that two of the biggest contributions to Campaign for 2016 in recent days were $300,000 from George Zelcs and $200,000 from Christine Moody, both attorneys for the Korein Tillery law firm with offices in St. Louis and Chicago.

Stephen Tillery, a St. Louis-based principle of Korein Tillery, is seeking Karmeier's recusal from the Illinois Supreme Court's consideration of an appeal of a decade-old $10.1 billion class-action verdict against Phillip Morris USA and in Tillery's favor over the nation's biggest cigarette maker's marketing of "light" and "low tar" designations.

In court motions, Tillery has argued "there is an objective and reasonable public perception" that Karmeier has bias favoring Philip Morris. The company and groups filing friends of the court briefs contributed millions of dollars to Karmeier's 2004 campaign, Tillery added.

Karmeier has refused to step aside, insisting he has no conflict.

Zelcs disagrees.

"Justice Karmeier consistently favors and bends over backwards to defend corporate interests, and I don't think people are aware of that," Zelcs said, pressing that Campaign for 2016 donors have contributed openly while Karmeier's retention quest is funded by "a dark-money (political action committee) that doesn't disclose the identities of its donors."

"The real takeaway is: Why not have transparency and accountability," Zelcs said.

Campaign for 2016, in an email Tuesday from chairman Barzin Emami, said the organization's opposition to Karmeier" is based solely on our view that he is not an impartial jurist and that his rulings and judicial philosophy is driven exclusively by what is in the best interests of the wealthy and big corporations."