Gramm, Lawrence Seek GOP Nomination for 11th Judicial Circuit
A Republican primary for judge in the 11th Judicial Circuit pits an entrenched public figure in the legal community against a former prosecutor and current defense attorney.
Central Illinois' 11th Judicial Circuit covers McLean, Ford, Livingston, Logan, and Wooford Counties.
The candidates seeking the Republican nomination in the race are both McLean County natives and, of course, attorneys, but that is about where the similarities end.
Paul Lawrence comes from a family of lawyers well entrenched in McLean County's legal scene, while Chris Gramm turned to law after working a few years as an interpreter in Japan for Mitsubishi, and has served as both a prosecutor and defense attorney. Gramm touts his highly conservative views and unabashedly points to his political activity when greeting voters.
"When they find out that Chris Gramm has been vice chairman of the McLean County Republican Party for example, or Chris Gramm has done both prosecution and defensive cases," Gramm said. "I think that those are interesting things."
Lawrence was appointed to the seat vacated when Michael Prall retired last year. He has been a judge for ten years although he has never run for judge or any office. He says voters do not really care about a judge's political views.
"I certainly have not, uh, advertised myself as having conservative views or moderate views or liberal views," Lawrence said. "I don't think that is an important factor when you're looking at a judge. I think when you're looking at a judge you need to find a judge who's going to follow the law and that's what I've been doing."
Lawrence is a complete political newcomer and admits he's not comfortable in campaign mode. Political influence in judicial elections is nothing new to Illinois.
A recent Supreme Court race drew national attention for its multimillion dollar campaign contributions. But while Chris Gramm has aligned himself with the McLean County Republican Party, he had only received a few modest individual contributions from people associated with the party as of a few weeks to go in the race.
Illinois State University judicial scholar Bob Bradley said Gramm's ideological leanings don't do the process any favors.
"You should judge what the arguments are, what the facts are and you shouldn't be looking at that from a conservative or liberal lens because that means you're bringing an element of partiality into that that is not supposed to be there," Bradley said.
According to Bradley, Gramm is trying to draw a distinction between himself and Lawrence. That's difficult to do in a judicial campaign where voters, even in higher profile cases, have little knowledge about candidates. Surface issues tend to center around civic involvement, and not much else. The one reliable tool voters have is the ratings given to judicial candidates by the Bar Association.
Lawrence proudly touts his 95.1 percent rating given by lawyers in McLean County, while Gramm's 25-percent rating leaves him in the "not recommended" column.
Gramm brushes that off as insignificant, saying attorneys tend to reject his ultra-conservative views and that doesn't mirror the feelings of voters in McLean County.
But there is one "below the surface" issue that neither candidate likes to discuss. Late last year, an organization representing companies that get sued moved McLean County off a watch list to number eight nationally in its ranking of so-called "Judicial Hellhole."
The American Tort Reform Association a Judicial Hellhole as a place where civil judges systematically apply laws and court procedures in an unfair and unbalanced manner, usually against companies that are defendants in civil lawsuits.
Madison and St. Clair counties in southern Illinois are ranked fifth nationally, in part according to the association, because only about one in 10 asbestos cases tried there had any connection to the area.
Asbestos cases are also at the heart of McLean County's Judicial Hellhole status. Travis Akin is executive director of Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch. He said the main problem in McLean County is the conspiratorial nature of the cases being judged for the plainitffs.
"Companies that did not have a direct impact on exposing someone to asbestos are being held accountable through the idea," Akin said. "This civil conspiracy idea that these companies supposedly colluded to withhold evidence of the harmful effects of asbestos."
Akin said the problem is not the volume of cases in McLean County, but the out of balance size of the monetary judgments. Illinois Abuse Watch notes there was one jury verdict alone totaling more than $90-million last year.
Despite the Judicial hell hole designation, none of the judgments in McLean County asbestos cases had been vacated or overturned until a month ago, when appellate justices vacated two verdicts, one of them a $4-million judgment in a directed verdict case presided over by Judge Paul Lawrence.
Lawrence directed the verdict after Honeywell refused to comply with an order to produce a former employee as a trial witness--a product safety consultant Akin said had previously testified in 22 other McLean County cases.
Lawrence disagrees with the judicial hell hole ranking, saying lawyers in the county can attest to judicial fairness.
Asked whether or not there are problems with asbestos cases being tried in McLean County, Gramm said his work now is primarily in criminal cases so he can't offer an opinion on the civil suits. As to his chances of defeating a sitting, although appointed circuit court judge, Gramm said it happened ten years ago in McLean County and could happen again.