State Supreme Court justice targeted in ethics complaint

  • Medill News Service
  • February 08, 2006 @ 5:45 AM
Three public interest groups Tuesday called for an investigation of Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier for refusing to step aside in cases involving donors of more than $2.5 million to his campaign fund.

Common Cause, Business, Professional People for the Public Interest and Citizen Action Illinois filed a complaint with the Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board alleging misconduct on Karmeier's actions.

They have requested that the board investigate Karmeier's failure to recuse himself when cases involved State Farm Insurance and Philip Morris came before the high court. Karmeier, a judge for 20 years who was elected to the Illinois Supreme Court in 2004, cast the deciding vote reversing huge judgments against State Farm and Phillip Morris in two class action lawsuits.

The complaint alleges that, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections, State Farm donated more than $350,000 to Karmeier and that groups affiliated with State Farm gave more than $1 million to him. In addition, the groups allege that Karmeier received millions of dollars from groups affiliated with Phillip Morris at a time when the lawsuit against the cigarette maker was on appeal.

Karmeier, a resident of Washington County who currently resides in downstate Nashville, won the 2004 election, the most expensive judicial election in United States history. Mike Cherry, attorney for the complainants, said Tuesday during a press conference at BPI's downtown office that the cost of the campaign was $9 million.

The Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board monitors the conduct of all Illinois state court judges. If substance is found to charges, the board, whose members are appointed by the Supreme Court, can refer an issue to the Illinois Courts commission for a separate investigation. Commission members are not appointed by the Supreme Court.

BPI chairman Hoy McConnell said the allegations against Karmeier were different than those that have been raised about government officials for accepting corporate contributions and then benefitting donors.

In a statement accompanying a copy of the complaint, the three organizations contend that, "an Illinois Supreme Court Justice...has an affirmative obligation to recuse himself or herself from a case in which the judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned."

Cherry said that the complaint is meant to shed light on more than just one person's questionable actions.

"This is more than just Justice Karmeier," Cherry said. "It's about what kind of confidence we have in our judiciary."

Todd Dietterle, Common Cause Illinois board chair, agreed that the organizations are not looking for a specific punishment for possible misconduct, but to use this situation as a means to illuminate the guidelines of the Illinois Supreme Court.

"We simply must know why he didn't recuse himself," Dietterle said. "We have nothing in mind about an outcome. The larger issue is not him as individual but him as a player within a system."

Kathy Twine, executive director of general counsel for the Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board, said no comment could be made since any request into an investigation is confidential.

A spokesman for the Illinois Supreme Court said that Karmeier would be unable to comment because both cases are pending in some form in the appellate process.

The issue of Karmeier's alleged bias first surfaced when attorneys in the case involving State Farm asked the Justice to recuse himself in early 2005. Documents filed show that State Farm, which was the defendant in a class action suit, responded that "Justice Karmeier's statements during his campaign show him as someone who is 'without agenda' and committed to assuring a 'level playing field.'"

At the time, State Farm was appealing a $1.05 billion verdict against the insurance company. That verdict was later overturned by the state's high court with Karmeier casting the decisive vote. The State Farm and Phillip Morris cases represented the first and second largest class action judgments in the history of Illinois.

"We would like to see the Illinois Courts Commission be presented with the complaint," McConnell said. "The only downside is that the process is lengthy and we would like to see justice be more swift."