Three Kane County judicial candidates in the Feb. 2 primary say they're limiting or refusing campaign contributions from attorneys to avoid the appearance of bias in the courtroom.
The rest, however, say the move amounts to little more than a publicity stunt, and is reflective of the candidates' own insecurities about making impartial decisions.
The debate ensued after Republican David Akemann and Democrat John Dalton issued news releases pledging to forego attorney donations out of ethical concerns.
Associate Judge Robert Janes, another of the six candidates running for the bench, said he, too, is addressing the issue by limiting attorney donations to $50. His fellow Republican candidates, Thomas Patrick Rice, D.J. Tegeler and Associate Judge Leonard Wojtecki, and Democrat Michael C. Funkey, meanwhile, are not.
At issue is whether a campaign contribution could present a conflict of interest - or the appearance of one at least - if the donor ever argues a case in front of the candidate.
"The citizens of Kane County have the right to a fair trial and an impartial judge," said Dalton, an Elgin attorney, in his news release. "Accepting contributions from attorneys would bring my independence and integrity into question."
On the other end, Wojtecki noted judicial candidates are legally able to collect donations from anyone and are elected partly on their reputations for impartiality.
"Isn't Mr. Dalton really saying he can't be impartial here?" he said. "I know of no lawyer or judge who is going to throw away their career for a campaign contribution."
Added Tegeler, a Geneva attorney: "My ethics are not to be bought. If I ever feel down the road I need to recuse myself, I'll do it."
Matt Streb, associate professor of political science at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb and the author of "Running for Judge," said attorney donations have long been debated in judicial elections, but the evidence as to whether there is any effect in the courtroom is "decidedly mixed."
Streb said judicial candidates often receive less media coverage than other candidates and have fewer political issues than candidates in most races. So they rely on those who know them best - fellow lawyers - to help them get the word out.
"Most people don't have a lot of information about these candidates when they walk into the voting booth," Streb said.
Judicial races are nonpartisan in most other states, Streb said, and some campaigns outside of Illinois are publicly financed.
When voters receive more information on candidates, they're more likely to vote rather than skip the ballot item, known as "voter roll-off."
"It's not always clear what constitutes a conflict of interest," Streb said. "There could be some positives to money in judicial elections. And there's a whole bunch of reasons why it might be a bad thing. It's equivalent to a student's parents funding one of my research projects and then me having that student in my class. The question really comes down to how large is the donation."
Janes said he has capped campaign contributions at $50 an attorney, and he will not accept donations from courthouse employees, such as bailiffs, clerks, prosecutors and public defenders.
"We cannot believe that anyone could reasonably believe a judge would be interested by such a modest contribution," he said. "I'm confident the election will be decided upon the candidates' qualifications and not their campaign war chests."
Akemann said he believes refusing lawyer donations is "what the citizens want and deserve," and that entails "avoiding the appearance of any impropriety."
Rice, a Batavia attorney, called the debate "ludicrous" and a "ploy" for publicity. He said judicial candidates might as well refuse all donations, according to his opponents' philosophy, because anyone could wind up in a courtroom at any time.
"I may be the only one who has the guts to tell you this, but you have to take the money," he said. "Until we have (nonpartisan) merit selection, you have to have a campaign that costs money. Attorneys know who they prefer, and they know who's honest and who's good."
Funkey, a private-practice attorney who has worked for the village of Elburn and Aurora Township, said he hopes to avoid finding out who contributed to him by making fundraising a separate function of his campaign office.
"It's not fail-safe," he said. "But I'm doing everything I can to make sure I'm not aware of who's giving me contributions. I would certainly not allow it to be a problem with my candidacy or performance on the bench."