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Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014 12:01 am

Judging time

Two vie for spot on bench



A lawyer could do worse than land a seat on the Sangamon County circuit court bench.

A judge makes nearly $181,500 a year and doesn’t need malpractice insurance. There is always work but never any clients. Everyone stands when you show up for work.

No wonder, then, that a half-dozen or more lawyers have traditionally tried for judgeships when posts have come open for appointment – there were eight candidates, for example, when the state Supreme Court picked John Schmidt to replace Thomas Appleton in 2010, the last time a spot opened up on the circuit bench. But there are just two names on the March 18 ballot to replace former circuit judge Leo Zappa, who retired in December, and the winner of the Republican primary gets the job – unlike other elective posts, parties cannot appoint a person to run in the fall general election.

Why aren’t there more candidates?

“I hope it’s because peers and colleagues thought that I would be a good person for this position and they think that I will do a good job as circuit judge,” said Sangamon County associate judge John “Mo” Madonia,  who is seeking a step up from presiding over misdemeanors. “I think I’m qualified to do it. I think between my educational background and my experience that I am equipped to handle more complex litigation and take on felony matters. … Small claims and evicting people on Christmas Eve is not my idea of the best use of my abilities.”

A primary election for circuit judge is rare in Sangamon County, where circuit judges are usually appointed by the Supreme Court to fill vacancies and serve a year or more before facing voters to win a full six-year term. Madonia says he believes the court didn’t make an appointment because less than four months separated Zappa’s retirement date from election day. On the other hand, if Zappa had waited until after the filing period for candidates to get themselves on the ballot, an appointee would not have had to face voters until 2016.

“It’s really about the timing of when Zappa retired in relation to the election,” Madonia says. “The other way was always called political shenanigans.”

Kent Gray, a Lincoln Land Community College trustee who is running against Madonia, sees politics nonetheless. Madonia, Gray says, is as much a Democrat as a Republican and so Democrats may not have seen a need to have a candidate on the ballot. Gray points out that Madonia recently described himself as a moderate on social issues in an interview with the State Journal-Register.

“I’m a fiscal and social conservative and have been for 25 years,” Gray says.

The Sangamon County bench is important because issues of statewide importance are often litigated in Springfield, the seat of state government, Gray said. For example, a lawsuit over increased health insurance premiums for state retirees got its start in the Sangamon County courthouse.

“If there’s anywhere you should have a conservative bench, it should be Springfield,” Gray said. “There are always important policy matters that are coming before the Sangamon County courts.”

Gray, who is in private practice and serves as attorney for Southern View and Illiopolis, says that his 12 years in private practice, 15 years on the Lincoln Land Community College Board and nine years on the Springfield civil service commission have prepared him well for the bench. Madonia worked as an assistant state’s attorney and an attorney in private practice before becoming an associate judge.

“I’ve been in the well of the courtroom trying cases on both sides,” Madonia says. “It’s given me a unique perspective on telling people what’s fair.”

Local lawyers overwhelmingly support Madonia judging from a poll conducted by the state bar association. More than 83 percent of the 736 attorneys who participated in the poll deemed Madonia qualified for the post; fewer than 18 percent of the lawyers who filled out ballots found that Gray met requirements for the bench.

Since forming his campaign committee in November, Madonia has raised nearly $29,000, which includes a $10,000 loan from himself. Gray, who already had a campaign fund from his contests for the Lincoln Land board and an unsuccessful bid for Christian County state’s attorney in 2004, has received just one contribution since filing for judge, a $1,000 donation from a Peoria-based political action committee with ties to U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Peoria.

Beyond deciding cases, Madonia says he’s hoping to institute a mental health court to adjudicate cases involving defendants whose charges are rooted in mental illness.

Defendants who aren’t considered dangerous could be diverted from incarceration if they follow treatment plans that include counseling and taking prescribed psychotropic medications, he said.

“It would be so much better than the burden of jail,” he said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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