PodCamp: Judge Shares His Journey to the Bench

Jul 19, 2018
Nathaniel Hostetter with Brian Otwell.
Katie Buck / NPR Illinois 91.9 UIS

Hello I’m Nathaniel Hostetter for the 2018 NPR Illinois PodCamp.

Brian Ottwel is an Associate Judge for the seventh Judicial Court of Illinois for eight years.

When their terms are up, sitting judges who want to hold onto their seats usually run for election as nonpartisan candidates. It's called "retention." But this year, three St. Clair County circuit court judges who are running like they're new to the bench. And they're doing it as Democrats.

Lloyd Karmeier
Brian Mackey / WUIS

No justice of the Illinois Supreme Court has lost a retention election since the up-or-down system was put in place 50 years ago. Last fall, Justice Lloyd Karmeier came close. He squeezed into another decade on the bench with just 2,921 votes to spare — less than eight-tenths of a percentage point above the required 60 percent threshold. His brush with late retirement — Karmeier turned 75 in January — was brought about by a nasty, last-minute advertising blitz for which the judge was ill-prepared.

Brian Mackey/WUIS

Illinois legislators will be asked today (12/3) to take what many say could be the most important vote of their careers. They've been called back to Springfield to take up a measure that would drastically alter the state's retirement plans. Doing so would have obvious ramifications for state employees, teachers and university workers whose pensions are at stake. But the impact of a vote is far more widespread. What happens could also affect everything from the state's credit rating and Illinois' next budget, to the 2014 elections. The outcome is anything but certain.

Illinois Supreme Court Building
Illinois Supreme Court

Illinois lawmakers remain at odds over how to handle the state's $100 billion of pension debt.  But there's a chance that this spring the General Assembly may finally do something about it.  After years of no major action, there are not one, but two major packages designed to reign in Illinois' retirement costs.  The House and Senate passed competing plans.  Both of them seek to save Illinois money by cutting current and retired government workers' benefits.  But one important group of government workers are being left out of both deals - judges.

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Has the time come for Illinois to reconsider the manner in which it selects its judges?

The question seems timely: A campaign finance reform task force is weighing public financing for judicial elections, in part to counter a generally held public view that campaign contributions affect courtroom decisions. Meanwhile, dozens of candidates for judicial posts — from the Illinois Supreme Court to circuit court — are scurrying to raise money for next year’s primary and general elections. 



Well, on the bright side of Illinois’ judicial elections, the big-business-funded American Tort Reform Association has dropped downstate Madison County from its list of “Judicial Hellholes.”

New Democratic Chief Judge Ann Callis, who the Illinois Civil Justice League — the complainers-in-chief about Madison County’s courts — says has cleaned up those courts, received a standing ovation at the league’s annual banquet.

The sign on the door used to read “Men Only.” A woman could be at the top of her law school class, but she wasn’t getting into the judiciary. In recent years, though, women have chipped that figurative sign off the door of the Cook County Circuit Court, and a growing number of them are becoming judges.

This increase is attributed largely to the creation of judicial subcircuits within that county, and to a rise in the sheer number of women lawyers.