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Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012 07:36 pm

Judging the judge

Appointed judge John Schmidt faces challenge at polls

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Sangamon County circuit court judge John Schmidt, left, is facing a challenge from local attorney Tim Londrigan, right.

The race for a Sangamon County Circuit Court judgeship is not, the participants readily acknowledge, a particularly sexy one.

“I don’t think the judicial race is a big draw,” says Tim Londrigan, challenger to incumbent John Schmidt, who was appointed to the bench in 2010. “It does concern me that people don’t give the judicial race the time and attention it deserves.”

The candidates can’t answer questions on issues that they might one day be called upon to consider in court, so voters can’t know answers to such questions as whether they would rule in favor of the right to carry concealed firearms or have an abortion. And so judicial races often boil down to debating who has the best legal skills, experience and personality for the position.

Both candidates enjoy name recognition. Before becoming judge, Schmidt served more than a decade as Sangamon County state’s attorney, winning three elections to the post. Londrigan, a Springfield attorney, is the son of a retired state appellate court judge. Patrick Londrigan, a cousin, is a circuit court judge. Another cousin named Londrigan lost to Schmidt in the 2000 race for state’s attorney.

Since his appointment, Schmidt has presided in a number of high-profile cases, including a lawsuit filed against the state last year by Catholic dioceses that argued the state could not prohibit the church from refusing to consider civil-union households when placing foster or adoptive children. After Schmidt ruled against the church, Springfield Bishop Thomas Paprocki, who called the law “Orwellian,” went after him and high-ranking state politicians by name in a column condemning the law and the judge’s decision.

“I have purposely named the names of the major protagonists in this case because I want you to pray for them and for their conversion of heart,” Paprocki wrote in the diocesan newspaper. “I do not want you to hate them. Jesus said to love your enemies.”

Hardly an endorsement from the head of the church in a heavily Catholic town. Schmidt’s supporters say the ruling shows that the incumbent isn’t afraid to take on tough cases and make potentially unpopular calls that could hurt him on Election Day.

“You never make a decision based on what you perceive to be or what you believe to be public reaction or public opinion,” Schmidt says. “I’m the only one in the race that has the experience. I’ve made the difficult decisions that are required of a judge. And I’ve done that now for two years.”

On his campaign website, Londrigan says he’s running because “there is a perception that the law doesn’t work the same way for everyone.” For too long, he writes, “people charged with enforcing the law and protecting our interests have looked the other way or shirked their responsibilities while benefiting from the same discredited establishment under which insider politics and corruption seem to have flourished.”

Is this a shot at Schmidt?

“Mr. Schmidt’s been the state’s attorney for quite some time,” Londrigan says. “I think he’s been a lifelong politician, so he is part of the establishment. I’ve never run for a political office.”

Londrigan, who is a city of Springfield hearing officer and also handles some cases for the state’s attorneys appellate prosecutor’s office in addition to his private practice, says that his experience in handling a breadth of civil and criminal cases, both as a prosecutor and a defense attorney, would serve him well on the bench. By contrast, he says, Schmidt’s experience as a prosecutor could color his perspective.

“Over a period of time, if you only work one side of the fence, your perception is naturally going to be jaded over time,” Londrigan said.

Not so, counters Schmidt. If criminal defense attorneys thought that they couldn’t get a fair shake from him, they would be routinely exercising their right to have him dismissed from newly assigned cases, Schmidt says, and that hasn’t happened. He also points out that the state’s attorney, in addition to handling criminal cases, is also responsible for handling civil legal issues for Sangamon County.

Despite his experience as a prosecutor, sentencing criminals is never fun, Schmidt says.

“No matter what the crime, it’s a human being standing in front of you,” Schmidt says.

Schmidt edged out Londrigan in a poll of local lawyers conducted by the Illinois State Bar Association. More than 83 percent of the lawyers polled said that Schmidt was qualified for the office; less than 76 percent said that Londrigan was qualified. Schmidt also finished ahead of Londrigan when lawyers were asked to rate integrity, impartiality, legal ability, temperament and court management skills. Londrigan got higher scores for sensitivity and health – Schmidt, regardless of how slimming a black robe might be, acknowledges that he would do well to curtail his Oreo habit and lose weight.

Londrigan, however, has an advantage in fundraising, having raised nearly $30,000, about $6,000 more than Schmidt.

“I think it tells me that I do have support in the community,” Londrigan said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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