by Frank Conklin, The Chicago Times

November 16, 2021

SPRINGFIELD, IL — A new Illinois law requires all candidates to disclose the sources of their contributions, with the goal of prohibiting out-of-state contributions and so-called “dark money” in judicial campaigns.

Gov. J. B. Pritzker singed into law Monday Senate Bill 536 which prohibits judicial campaign committees from accepting contributions from out-of-state sources or from any person or entity that does not disclose the identity of those making the contribution, with the exception of contributions that are less than the itemizing threshold.

The bill also raises the contribution threshold for itemizing contributions from $500 to $1,000.  It also prohibits people from making or accepting anonymous contributions, as well as contributions made in the name of someone else.

On the final day of the fall veto session, Democrats pushed the bill through the General Assembly.  It arose in part in response to the 2020 elections, in which Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride, a Democrat, was defeated for re-election, the first time in state history that a state Supreme Court justice was defeated for re-election.

According to campaign finance reports, a group called Citizens for Judicial Fairness legally spent more than $5.9 million on a campaign to defeat Killbride.  However, the campaign also received hundreds of thousands of dollars from so-called dark money organizations, such as the Judicial Fairness Project, which does not reveal its donors.

Kilbride’s campaign spent nearly $4 million on his behalf, with the majority of the funds coming from labor unions, trial lawyers, and the Democratic Party of Illinois.

“Trying to avoid dark money in elections is something that I think we can all get behind.  As a result, the change would prevent out-of-state and untraceable money from entering our judicial races, thereby preserving the integrity of those judicial elections.” Rep. Katie Stuart, D-Edwardsville, said during a House floor debate.

GOP members, on the other hand, claimed it was a partisan move designed to help Democrats maintain their current 4-3 majority on the court.

“I can’t help but notice that the impetus for great changes in how we conduct elections for the judiciary in the state of Illinois, both the remapping of the Supreme Court (and) the change in campaign finance activities comes after, for the first time in the history of our state, a Democratic Supreme Court justice lost his retention in the 2020 election . . . this is another effort for the majority to change the rules of the game because they don’t like the outcome,” said Rep. Ryan Spain, R-Peoria.

The bill was passed by both chambers of the General Assembly, 72-42 in the House and 41-17 in the Senate.