Illinois Public Media News
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.
Back in early January, on the first day of the Indiana General Assembly session, hundreds of pro-union organizers greeted lawmakers as they came to work in Indianapolis.
It was loud, boisterous and heated as unions geared up for a fight with Republican lawmakers and tried to prevent a right-to-work bill from going through.
That fight was over weeks ago - with Republicans proving to be stronger by approving right-to-work legislation, which is now law in the state of Indiana.
The law prohibits companies from requiring employees to join a union as a condition of employment, even if a collective bargaining contract already in place calls for it.
But by Friday's final day of the session, gone were the noise, shouts and political threats. All that remained were tired legislators looking to make last-minute changes to several bills.
The session officially ended at 2 a.m. Saturday, two hours after the required midnight close.
In the final day, lawmakers passed a bill that gives Hoosiers greater authority to resist illegal police entry into their homes. The law is in response to a ruling last year by the Indiana Supreme Court in the Barnes v. Indiana case. The ruling suggested residents could not refuse police entry into their homes, whether police officers came with a warrant or not.
Randy Head, a Republican from Logansport, Ind., said the legislature needed to address the issue because the Indiana Supreme Court's ruling was too broad.
"Bottom line for me under Barnes is that it said if a police officer is off duty and breaks into a house, clearly unlawfully, and steals something from that house or hurts someone in that house or sets fire to that house," Head told Indiana Public Broadcasting, "the homeowner has to say, 'Officer, stop or I'm going to sue you later.'"
But some lawmakers say the law complicates the issue even more for both the public and police.
According to the legislation, residents can only use force against police if they feel their life is in danger.
In the Barnes case, police in the far southwestern Indiana city of Evansville responded to a domestic abuse case. When police arrived, the estranged wife of a man thought to be harming her refused police entry into their home.
Police entered despite the objections of the husband, who claimed all was well.
In other action, lawmakers passed a bill that prohibits public smoking in certain places, but there are many exceptions. Smokers can still light up in casinos, bars, private clubs and veteran organization facilities like VFW halls. The law is viewed as so weak, however, that the American Heart Association pulled its support of the law.
House speaker Brian Bosma, a Republican, said a lot was accomplished this year.
"Safe to say we've seen the strongest reform-minded General Assembly, at least in institutional memory and perhaps in recent history," Bosma said.
Twenty members of the Indiana General Assembly, including longtime Democratic Northwest Indiana legislators Dan Stevenson of Highland and Chet Dobis of Merrillville, are retiring from state politics.
Following mixed results on Super Tuesday, the chairman of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign in Illinois expects the candidate to visit the state soon.
State Treasurer Dan Rutherford said national staff members for the former Massachusetts governor were expected in the state over the weekend.
Rutherford said it is exciting that Illinois could play a role in deciding the next Republican presidential nominee
"This is all right now about delegates," he said. "Mitt Romney has a significant foothold and advantage over the others, and Illinois is a big player in it, and we'll continue to work towards that come Tuesday, March 20."
Speaking at a Republican dinner in Pontiac over the weekend, Rutherford expected that Romney's competitors would make a stop in Illinois as well.
Meanwhile, changes made by the Republican National Committee are meant to allow the presidential nominating process to continue past the early states. Rutherford said those adjustments were also made to avoid early winner-take-all. But he questions whether the tactics hurt party unity.
"I'm not sure it was a good decision, in fact, I think it was probably not the best decision because right now, we're starting to beat each other up and eat our own," Rutherford said. "The debate lines are going to be used by Barack (Obama's) campaign to go against whoever the eventual nominee is."
Rutherford's prediction about Illinois presidential campaigns appears to hold true for one of the GOP candidates. Ron Paul's Illinois campaign site has announced the Texas congressman will make a stop at the University of Illinois' Urbana campus Wednesday night. He is scheduled to be at the U of I's Foellinger Auditorium at 7 p.m.
(Photo by Jeff Bossert/WILL)
The same collapse that cost Bruce Weber his job will keep Illinois out of the postseason.
Illinois (17-15, 6-12 Big Ten) was left out of the NIT on Sunday. Athletic Director Mike Thomas said after he fired Weber on Friday that the Illini wouldn't be part of the lower-level College Basketball Invitational or collegeinsider.com tournaments.
Weber was fired after his team collapsed over the season's final six weeks.
Some Illinois players reportedly wanted to skip the NIT even if Illinois had gotten a bid.
The snub completed a collapse in which Illinois sank from a likely NCAA tournament bid in mid-January. But after beating then-No. 5 Ohio State, the Illini lost 12 of 14.
This is the second year in the last five that Illinois has missed the postseason altogether.
Meanwhile, Illinois State will make its fourth appearance in the National Invitation Tournament in the past five seasons when it takes on Ole Miss Wednesday.
The federal government has denied disaster status for the parts of southern Illinois affected by deadly storms and tornadoes last month. That means it will be more difficult for individuals and local governments to get federal assistance to recover.
In Harrisburg, a tornado killed seven people. Across the region, storms destroyed 104 homes, with hundreds more suffering serious damage. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency has a formula that weighs the amount of damage against the overall population of the state - a dollar of damage per capita.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) learned Sunday morning that southern Illinois did not qualify. He spoke to reporters outside his Springfield home that afternoon.
"I can't believe it," Durbin said. "I was there a little over a week ago and saw it first-hand. I've never seen worse tornado damage."
FEMA would need to have found about $12 million in damage in order to make the federal disaster declaration, according to Durbin. He said the damage seemed severe enough that that figure should have been within reach.
In a statement, Gov. Pat Quinn said he is extremely disappointed by FEMA's decision to deny the request for federal assistance.
"After personally surveying the damage and talking to many residents who lost their homes, I firmly believe federal assistance is crucial to help them begin the recovery process," Quinn said.
"Without the federal designation, there are limited opportunities for federal help," Durbin said. "And take a look at what's happening here with our own state treasury. There's a limited opportunity there to compensate for these losses."
Government assistance can take the form of grants to local government and low-interest loans to small businesses. It can also help people whose losses exceed their insurance.
"I have just never seen worse devastation, and I find it hard to imagine that it didn't qualify," Durbin said.
Durbin said he and fellow Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk are preparing a joint appeal of the decision. It's something he said he's tried only once before - after the South Pekin tornado in 2003 - and that appeal was unsuccessful.
A new poll says that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has a slight edge over Rick Santorum in Illinois
The Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll published Sunday (http://bit.ly/A1g7y1 ) shows 35 percent of likely GOP voters favored Romney to Santorum 35 percent to 31 percent.
Newt Gingrich had 12 percent, Texas Congressman Ron Paul had 7 percent and 16 percent were undecided.
However, the poll says 46 percent of voters said they could still change their minds before the state's March 20 primary election.
The poll of 600 registered likely voters was conducted March 7-9. It has an error margin of 4 percentage points.
The poll shows that Romney is doing well in Chicago's suburbs, but Santorum has a 35 percent to 29 percent advantage in the 96 counties outside the Chicago area.
Police say thieves in India used the signature of a local official in central Illinois to forge a check and steal $45,000.
It was as easy as going online, where an image of the DeWitt County treasurer's signature was available.
The (Bloomington) Pantagraph (http://tinyurl.com/7xkd4hl ) reported Saturday that the fake check was submitted electronically to a bank in New York in November. The funds were reimbursed when the fraud was uncovered.
DeWitt County Sheriff Jered Shofner says the thieves struck again late last month. They attempted to steal more than $35,000 from the village of Wapella. This time, the thieves tried to transfer funds to an account in Japan.
Investigators concluded the thieves were using a check for a tax distribution from the county that was posted on the village website.
The Illinois State Bar Association supports the Illinois Supreme Court's plan to test the use of cameras in state courtrooms, the head of the attorneys group said.
"The Illinois State Bar Association fully supports the pilot program and access to the courtrooms in general," John Locallo, the ISBA's president, told The Quincy Herald-Whig (http://bit.ly/y0DCZk ). "We are very excited about it and it's a great opportunity to bring to the public access to the judicial system."
Locallo, a Chicago attorney, said he has had informal talks with some of his association's 33,000 members and support for the test program has been strong.
He said part of what makes Illinois' test program attractive is that it allows judges to control what happens in their courtrooms.
"I think what is different about the Illinois program, compared to programs nationwide, is that the way it is set up, the judge only has to show good cause to restrict the media," Locallo said. "In Illinois, it allows the judge to decide if the media can be in the courtroom, and his final decision cannot be overturned. Since the judge is in charge of controlling the courtroom anyway, who better to be in charge of the media and the litigants?"
The Illinois Supreme Court in January announced it would start allowing cameras and recorders in state courts on an experimental basis with the aim of eventually pulling Illinois for good out of the group of 14 states that ban extensive media access at trials. The court later chose the 14th Judicial Circuit to begin testing the policy because it is on the border with Iowa, which already allows cameras in courtrooms.
Locallo made his comments Thursday in Quincy, where he addressed cameras in courts and other issues during a meeting with the Adams County Bar Association.
UIUC Students Approve Fee To Help Daily Illini
University of Illinois students will be paying to help support the student newspaper and its related media outlets.
Illinois already bans texting while driving. And it's illegal to use a cell phone when driving in construction and school zones.
Even more restrictions could be down the road. The Illinois House approved a measure Thursday that would ban drivers from using their cell phones without a hands-free device.
The proposal only applies to holding a phone up to your ear, using a headset or speakerphone would still be permitted. Representative John D'Amico, a Chicago Democrat, sponsored the legislation.
Chicago is one of many cities in Illinois that already have a similar ban in place. D'Amico says that creates a patchwork of regulations that's confusing to motorists. He says he realizes people don't always drive with both hands on the steering wheel, but having another hand free could help a driver avoid an accident.
"I want to make sure that that second hand is available to be on the wheel, right now if you got that hand on the phone to your ear and one hand on the wheel, you can't react quick enough," D'Amico said.
The measure passed 62 to 53. Critics say singing in the car, applying makeup or drinking hot coffee are just as distracting as talking on the phone. They say it's overregulation and would create an easy opening for racial profiling.
First-time offenders would be charged 75 dollars and get a moving violation, a citation akin to a speeding ticket.
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