Lawsuit challenges donation caps in Illinois court races

A former Illinois lawyer who retired to Texas and two conservative political action committees filed a federal lawsuit on Wednesday challenging recently approved restrictions on campaign contributions to Illinois judicial candidates for First Amendment grounds.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago by the conservative Liberty Justice Center on behalf of John Matthew Chancey, Fair Courts America and Restoration PAC, comes three months before Illinois voters are due to vote in two presidential races. State Supreme Court that will determine whether Democrats maintain their 4-3 majority on the state’s highest court.

Seeking to preserve Democratic control of all three branches of state government, House Democrats last year approved a measure barring judicial nominees from receiving campaign money from contributors and out-of-state groups that do not disclose their donors.

This year, lawmakers approved another measure that prohibits contributions of more than $500,000 per election cycle from a single source to independent spending committees set up to support or oppose judicial nominees.

In their lawsuit, Chancey and the PACs argue that both laws violate free speech rights established in cases such as the US Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United decision, which opened the door to contributions unlimited policies.

“The Supreme Court has recognized that political campaign contributions are protected speech, and therefore a government must prove that restrictions on campaign contributions pass First Amendment scrutiny,” the lawsuit states. “Here, the two restrictions on contributions in court races cannot meet this test.”

The lawsuit, which names the Illinois State Board of Elections and Attorney General Kwame Raoul as defendants, asks the federal court to grant a preliminary injunction blocking the restrictions and strike them down as unconstitutional.

In arguing against the restrictions, the lawsuit says state law unconstitutionally prohibits Chancey, who practiced law from 1978 until his retirement in 2016, from contributing to friends and acquaintances running for seats. on the bench.

Similarly, Fair Courts America and Restoration PAC, which share a Downers Grove address and have the same committee treasurer, according to federal campaign finance records, say they are deprived of the ability to raise and spend more. $500,000 to support or oppose judicial candidates. this year, which they say violates the First Amendment.

As of June 30, Restoration PAC had nearly $436,000 in the bank, while Fair Courts America had just under $30,000 on hand and outstanding debts of $272,000, all in loans from Restoration, according to court records. Federal Election Commission.

Restoration PAC was founded by businessman Doug Traux, who unsuccessfully ran for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in 2014.

Although there is legal precedent for tighter restrictions on campaign fundraising in court races, the lawsuit argues that the new Illinois law goes beyond authorized steps to prevent corruption and preserve the integrity of the courts.

Outside of court races, state law allows independent spending committees to raise and spend unlimited funds to support or oppose candidates, as long as they don’t coordinate directly with a campaign.

“It is evident that Illinois politicians have passed laws intended to disenfranchise their opponents by restricting their political speech,” Truax said in a statement. “It is unconstitutional and un-American and both laws must be struck down immediately.”

State Board of Elections spokesman Matt Dietrich declined to comment on the ongoing lawsuit, and a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office did not respond Wednesday night.

The lawsuit comes after billionaire Ken Griffin donated $6.25 million to another independent spending committee, Citizens for Judicial Fairness, before the new law limiting individual contributions took effect in May.

Illinois has a history of record spending on court races, highlighted by the successful 2020 campaign to overthrow Democratic Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride.

Kilbride and the main group opposing his retention together raised more than $11.7 million, the most expensive retention vote ever recorded nationally.

Kilbride’s removal from the bench set off a series of events that led to the Democratic-controlled General Assembly drawing new boundaries for the state’s five judicial districts in an effort to preserve their party’s judicial majority.

In the Nov. 8 ballot, Democratic Lake County Associate Justice Elizabeth “Liz” Rochford takes on Republican Mark Curran, the former Lake County sheriff, in the race for the Supreme Court seat in the new 2nd Judicial District. , which includes Lake, McHenry, DeKalb, Kane and Kendall counties.

In the new 3rd Judicial District, comprising DuPage, Will and Kankakee counties, Republican Judge Nominee Michael J. Burke faces Democratic Appellate Judge Mary K. O’Brien.

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