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Thursday, Oct. 7, 2004 05:43 pm

Proxy fight

Lloyd Karmeier

This year's only Illinois Supreme Court race is just about the hottest political thing going.

The 5th District race pits appellate justice Gordon Maag, a Democrat from Glen Carbon, against trial judge Lloyd Karmeier, a Nashville Republican.

For many, this race isn't between two candidates; it's an all-out proxy war fought on behalf of, and financed by, the trial lawyers on Maag's side and business interests, insurance companies, and health-care providers on Karmeier's.

Millions of dollars are expected to be spent in this race. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has already committed to dumping a mountain of cash into Karmeier's campaign, and individual trial lawyers have written gigantic checks for Maag.

The district covers southern Illinois, from Christian County (just southeast of Springfield) at the top and Alexander County (Cairo) at the southern tip. It stretches from Madison and St. Clair counties in the St. Louis metro area to the Lawrence and Crawford counties on the Indiana border.

In 2002, gubernatorial candidate Rod Blagojevich won the district with 51 percent of the vote. Lisa Madigan, running for attorney general, just barely took it with 49.86 percent. Republican Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka breezed by with 54.1 percent. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore lost the district to George W. Bush 50-48. On paper, it's a toss-up district.

The state GOP is deeply involved with the Karmeier race, as are the Senate Republicans. Carter Hendren, who ran the Senate GOP operation for years, is overseeing the operation. Republican Congressman John Shimkus has lent his press spokesman to Karmeier's effort and has put his organization solidly behind the candidate.

The Republicans are organizing this race almost solely around the medical-malpractice crisis. When doctors began fleeing the area because of skyrocketing malpractice-insurance premiums, the resulting crisis atmosphere sprouted local citizens' groups and activated business organizations. Several mayors faced with the prospect of losing doctors and even entire hospitals also banded together. The Republicans have been busily plugging all those groups into the Karmeier network for the past several months.

The Democrats, meanwhile, have been gearing up their own very substantial local political network and are registering black voters like crazy. Though the district's African-American population isn't enormous, Barack Obama's candidacy for U.S. Senate has the potential to spur a huge turnout.

Democratic state Rep. Jay Hoffman, a partner at the Lakin Law Firm, the top trial-attorney firm in the region, has a major role in the Maag campaign. Maag was an attorney at Lakin for years. Son Tom is there now. Jay Hoffman was the prime force behind Blagojevich's tremendous Metro East success. State-party chairman Mike Madigan is also pushing Maag hard.

Maag hasn't been the greatest candidate. He started out tagged as a tool of the trial lawyers, which is becoming a real serious epithet in southern Illinois. Maag was rated "qualified" by the Illinois Bar; Karmeier was rated "highly qualified." Maag's also running for retention as an appellate justice this year, but a recent bar survey ranked him near the bottom of all judicial candidates in Illinois [for more about the candidates, see Geri L. Dreiling, "Supreme fight," May 27, at].

Maag began running TV ads last week but had to pull them when Shriners Hospitals complained that Maag made it appear as if the hospital network was endorsing his campaign.

Karmeier hasn't completely avoided controversy either. Back in May, allegations surfaced that state Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, was using his state office to coordinate local political activities for Karmeier.

In 2002, the candidates for the open 4th Supreme Court District seat spent a combined $1.4 million. This year's contest will easily surpass that, with each candidate rumored to be budgeting about a million-five.

Why is this race so important? After all, the Democrats have a solid 5-2 majority on the Supreme Court, so losing the 5th wouldn't give control to the Republicans.

The easy answer is that the 5th belongs to the trial lawyers and always has. They don't want to lose it, and the other side would dearly love to snatch it away. The Democrats are also worried that there is now enough of a mushy middle on the court to swing the momentum to the other side if their margin is reduced to 4-3.

For the past 30 years, the Illinois Supreme Court has struck down just about every malpractice-reform law that has reached its august chambers. That could change if Karmeier wins, so both sides are going all-out.

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