State of the State: Robert Steigmann is at the front end of a trend in judicial races
The signs along the northbound lanes of I-55 near Bloomington look familiar. The series of five Burma Shave-style placards, planted just off the shoulder, resemble others put along roads throughout the state by Gunssavelife.com.
That’s no accident. Justice Robert Steigmann is a member of the Champaign County Rifle Association, the Web organization’s affiliated group, and he’s proud its members helped construct the signs to promote his race for the Illinois Supreme Court.
The signs alert motorists that Steigmann is “tough on thugs” and has “earned your vote.” They don’t speak to gun owners’ rights, and the judge says they were not a deliberate attempt to court pro-gun voters. Nonetheless, he acknowledges that, in as much as his signs mirror the pro-gun signs, they could help make his campaign attractive to voters who care deeply about that issue.
The gun group isn’t formally endorsing a candidate in the GOP primary for the high court seat from the 4th Judicial District, which stretches through central Illinois from the Mississippi River to Indiana. Steigmann, an Appellate Court justice, will face incumbent high court Justice Rita Garman, who was appointed and is running to retain the seat in the March 19 primary. The GOP nominee will face Appellate Justice Sue Myerscough, a Democrat, in November.
Still, Richard Klein, the gun group’s immediate past chair, says members prefer Steigmann’s stance on gun issues over Garman’s because Steigmann appears to be more of a “strict constructionist” when it comes to the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. And he says the connection between Steigmann’s name and the gun group’s signs — there are 35 sets placed strategically alongside roadways in high-traffic areas — is clear.
“I think that it’s obvious that the public will recognize an association: ‘Gee, this guy must really be endorsed by the gun people.’ And the public can come to whatever conclusion they want,” Klein says.
Indeed, that association helps put Steigmann at the front end of a trend in judicial races: campaigning on substantive — and sometimes controversial — issues that are dear to some voters. He’s challenging the traditional notion that a judge keep a low profile.
To be sure, Steigmann’s combative nature has made plenty of folks in legal circles uneasy. The Illinois State Bar Association, and its members in the 4th District, rated Steigmann “not recommended” for the high court. But as far as he’s concerned, more dialogue about his personal views is a healthy addition to the elective process.
“It’s almost an insult to voters to conduct a campaign for the bench, as has been done so often, on a resume and a smile, essentially saying, ‘This is what I’ve done in the past. I’m a nice person. Vote for me,’” Steigmann says. “Under the robes, we’re just people. And it seems to me that the voters have a right to know what are our fundamental values and judgments and beliefs.”
The move toward issue-based judicial races is, in a sense, consistent with a national trend toward more contentious races for the bench in states where judges are elected. Supreme Court races here and in other states have in recent years become more expensive, with special interests playing a greater role in campaign financing. And, as is the case with Steigmann, candidates are going further to stake out positions on controversial issues.Critics worry that more rhetoric from judicial candidates can compromise the candidates’ impartiality once on the bench and, ultimately, the judiciary’s integrity. After all, judges are charged with interpreting and applying the law to specific fact situations. Unlike legislators, they do not represent the people; they represent the law.
But judges still must win election and, as long as that’s the case, judicial candidates will do what they have to do to get elected. Like nonjudicial candidates, they form grass-roots organizations, mount campaigns that raise and spend money, and make statements in order to connect with voters.
The Illinois Supreme Court’s rules governing campaign conduct for judicial candidates were designed with this elective system in mind.
They forbid candidates from making statements that would commit or appear to commit them with respect to cases that could come before the court. Outside of that, judicial candidates have wide latitude to talk about their beliefs.
In a concurrence to the rule, now-retired Justice James Heiple wrote that, “Realistically speaking, it is not enough for the judge or candidate to merely give name, rank and serial number as though he were a prisoner of war. Rather, the public has a right to know the candidate’s core beliefs on matters of deep conviction and principle.”
He's challenging the traditional notion that judicial campaigns be confined to talk about a candidate's basic credentials.
But the storyboard signs are just the beginning for Steigmann. He’s publicly calling for the right to carry concealed weapons in Illinois. He has lobbied the General Assembly on other issues, in some cases drafting legislation. And he has run a television commercial featuring Chief Illiniwek, the controversial University of Illinois mascot, to promote his campaign. He says the university should keep the Chief, despite complaints from critics that doing so is insensitive.
He has publicly attacked several of the high court’s policies — also an unprecedented practice in judicial politics. And he’s pledged to shed light on the court’s “secretive” practices.
He says the court, which administers the state’s judicial system, should require all judges to expedite cases involving child custody. The court in January launched a committee to study how child custody cases could be expedited. Garman, Steigmann’s primary opponent, is a court liaison to the committee.
Steigmann also has his own weekly talk radio show based in Springfield. As he notes, he’s been talking for years about many of the issues that are central to his campaign.
For her part, Garman doesn’t express concern over Steigmann’s name recognition. She is running a more conventional campaign, complete with a strong organization and endorsements from such top Republicans as U.S. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and former Gov. Jim Edgar. Like Steigmann, she is traveling extensively, attending community functions throughout the 30-county district.
And she won’t accuse Steigmann of violating court rules, though she suggests his behavior is inappropriate. “I play by the rules. I don’t believe Rule 67 is a suggestion; it’s a rule,” she says. “If a Supreme Court candidate doesn’t play by the rules, I don’t know how we can expect anybody to play by the rules.”
As for Steigmann’s unusual practice of lobbying, she says, “If you want to draft legislation and get it passed, you ought to run for a legislative position. That’s what legislators do.”
Steven Lubet, a professor at the Northwestern University School of Law and co-author of the definitive resource on judicial ethics, says Steigmann is in the clear.
Specifically with regard to Steigmann’s call for a concealed carry law, Lubet says he hasn’t indicated how he would rule on a case involving such a law, and “discussing the advisability of legislation” is permitted. Lubet says judges can make statements about improvement in the law, the legal system or the administration of justice.
He says lobbying also is acceptable under court rules. “Judges are good at that; they are on the front line and it’s generally understood that they have expertise about how the law could be improved.”
It’s up to the Judicial Inquiry Board and the Illinois Courts Commission to decide whether Steigmann’s conduct violates judicial canons. If the board believes he has swayed too far, it will charge him. The commission then would decide whether he should be sanctioned.
In 2000, former Justice S. Louis Rathje accused an opponent of violating court rules to win votes. Rathje was appointed to the high court in 1998 to finish the last two years of another justice’s term. He then ran for the seat.
During the three-way GOP primary race for Rathje’s seat, Bob Thomas disclosed that he is against abortion. That position, and the unusual nature of the statement by a judicial candidate, was widely publicized. Thomas’ campaign also distributed fliers tagging Thomas as the only candidate endorsed by anti-abortion groups. His victory in the largely Republican district, west of Cook County to Iowa and north to Wisconsin, was attributed by some to that statement and his name recognition as a former Chicago Bears kicker.
Thomas says he first disclosed his anti-abortion stance in response to a reporter’s question and that the comment was not part of his campaign strategy. He says he made clear that he would make decisions based on the facts and the law, and, as such, thought there was nothing wrong with circulating his anti-abortion position.
“I guess up to that point, candidates didn’t say they didn’t have personal views; they said they couldn’t talk about personal views,” he says. “That seemed pretty ridiculous to me that you couldn’t speak on a matter of core values.” Asked whether the anti-abortion statement helped him win, Thomas says: “I don’t know the answer to that.”
So if judges are supposed to abandon their personal views once on the bench, is it appropriate for a judicial candidate to divulge those views when voters likely will weigh them in deciding which candidate to vote for?
Steigmann says sure. He says core values do play into judicial decision-making, though he’s not as bold when asked to be specific. He cites his support of the First Amendment and his fair approach to cases as values that impact decision-making. Any judicial candidate likely would embrace those two “values.”
Besides, he says, courting voters with messages not necessarily relevant to decision-making — such as Chief Illiniwek — is fair political game. “It’s to make people who see the commercial like you or like what you’re saying,” he says.
Judicial candidates are playing hardball. And Steigmann is playing the hardest.
Illinois Issues, March 2002