Rich Miller

Rich Miller

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By Rich Miller

Among other things, sitting Illinois judges are prohibited by Illinois Supreme Court Rule 4.1 from making “speeches on behalf of a political organization,” or “solicit funds” for a political organization or candidate, except when they’re up for election or retention.

So, you might ask, what the heck was Illinois Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Rochford thinking when she decided to accept an invitation to be the keynote speaker at the Lake County Democratic Women annual fundraising gala on September 9th? The registered political action committee is one of the most influential independent county-wide campaign groups of its kind in all of Illinois, having helped recruit, train and then elect dozens of local candidates over the years (including Justice Rochford herself).

“Illinois voters deserve a fair and impartial state Supreme Court that’s free of and from politics, which does not appear to be the case here,” said Illinois Republican Party Executive Director Shaun McCabe in a press release last week about Rochford’s speech.

RichMiller 1

Rich Miller

“The Illinois Supreme Court’s Code of Judicial Conduct (Canon 4, Page 48-50) is clear: sitting judges who aren’t up for election shall not speak at political functions supporting the election of candidates,” the Illinois Republican Party’s press release claimed. A Republican Party official said later that we can expect a formal complaint will be filed soon.

The controversy boils down to two questions about the Supreme Court’s rule: 1) Did Justice Rochford make a speech on behalf of a political organization? And 2) Did her role as keynote speaker mean she was soliciting funds for the Lake County Democratic Women PAC?

Rochford’s defenders say “no” to both questions. She gave a non-political speech “to” a political group, not “on behalf” of it. And she didn’t do anything to solicit any money for the political action committee.

Justice Rochford herself issued a rare statement to me last week: “I receive speaking requests from many groups and organizations. I believe it is important for judges to appear in public and help educate people about the Judicial Branch. My speech at this event was about the work of the Illinois Supreme Court, its non-partisan nature and the collegiality that is fostered by our unique lodging arrangement during court terms. The content of my speech was not political in any way and so should not be construed to have been provided on behalf of any political candidate or organization.”

Others who were at the event confirmed Rochford’s claim that she said nothing which could be construed as partisan or campaign-related in nature.

I totally get the narrow and lawyerly interpretation. Any formal Republican complaints are likely doomed because of it. These are lawyers, after all. Words are carefully chosen for good reason.

And, more importantly, we elect our judges in Illinois, so that means we do have to accept that they are inherently political beings. If they were all appointed and confirmed by the state Senate, or whatever, it would be a different story.

But, I mean, come on.

Keynote speakers are usually invited because they help legitimize the organization and, as a result, drive increased attendance. And robust attendance is obviously very crucial to the success of any annual fundraiser.

So, while Rochford didn’t technically speak “on behalf” of the group, she did help the Lake County Democratic Women further prove its bona fides by agreeing to speak.

And while she did not directly raise money for the group which helped nominate her in a competitive Democratic primary and then elect her over a Lake County Republican general election opponent, it should have been abundantly clear that her very presence undoubtedly helped the group raise at least some campaign money that it might possibly not have brought in without her.

Justice Rochford has been around politics for a very long time. She most certainly knows that this speech was far different from presenting to a law school symposium, or bar organization.

I’m not saying that judges and justices should cloister themselves away like monks. But they should at least try to keep up appearances when they’re not actively campaigning, especially during an era when every decision by just about every Supreme Court in the land, including the US Supreme Court, is being analyzed for political bents.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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