Then-Illinois Supreme Court candidate Lloyd Karmeier in 2004. | AP file photo
State Supreme Court justice could be grilled about own election
Justice Lloyd Karmeier has been on the Illinois Supreme Court for a decade.
But now he finds himself on the other side of the bench — drawn into a federal racketeering lawsuit in which lawyers signal they plan to question him under oath for a deposition after subpoenaing him to turn over documents.
Karmeier isn’t a defendant in the suit, but his 2004 election to the state’s high court is central to the complaint.
Filed in 2012 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, the suit alleges State Farm secretly funded most of Karmeier’s campaign by channeling as much as $4 million in donations primarily through other groups.
Furthermore, the suit claims the Bloomington-based insurance company hoped Karmeier, once elected, would help overturn a more-than-$1 billion judgment against State Farm.
Less than a year after winning his seat on the court, Karmeier, a Republican, indeed voted with the majority of justices to set aside the hefty judgment — which stemmed from a class-action complaint filed on behalf of millions of policy holders who claimed State Farm mandated that inferior parts be used to repair damaged cars.
Plaintiff lawyers from that class-action complaint said Karmeier should have recused himself when the State Farm appeal was decided by the Supreme Court in 2005. Attorneys representing policyholders in the current federal lawsuit say Karmeier should provide details about the size and scope of the insurer’s campaign funding.
“Justice Karmeier knew of State Farm’s participation in his campaign and election — there are emails proving that,” attorneys for the plaintiffs said in court documents filed in late May.
Karmeier’s lawyers say in court papers that there’s no evidence he did anything wrong or unethical. They also accuse plaintiff lawyers of going on a fishing expedition with their subpoena, which was served this past spring and seeks Karmeier’s computer files, phone records, tax and financial statements, and numerous other documents.
In court documents, State Farm acknowledged that employees and others affiliated with the company gave about $350,000 to Karmeier’s 2004 campaign, but the company denies allegations of filtering additional money through satellite organizations. Last year, a federal judge denied State Farm’s motion to dismiss the case. A State Farm spokeswoman declined to comment to us. So did State Farm lobbyist William G. Shepherd, who also is named in the lawsuit.
Aside from Karmeier’s subpoena, plaintiff lawyers made it clear at a June court hearing they want to depose Karmeier — in other words, make him give sworn statements related to this case. His attorney asked the federal judge to allow Karmeier to give any deposition in writing. The attorney also wants the scope of the subpoena narrowed. The judge in the case hasn’t yet ruled.
Karmeier declined to talk to us about the case.
Chicago lawyer Robert Clifford, one of the plaintiff lawyers (and, full disclosure, a BGA donor), said Karmeier should answer questions like any other witness.
“We ought to be able to ask the guy what we want,” Clifford said. “It’s not every day a judge gives a deposition but, under these circumstances, it’s not unusual.”
Karmeier is up for retention in the November election. He will get another 10-year term if 60 percent or more of the voters give him a thumbs up.
When Steven G. Watkins ran for Cook County subcircuit judge in 2010, he placed fourth out of six candidates. He fared much better this past March, winning a two-candidate Democratic primary for a seat in another judicial district.
While Watkins paid taxes last year on a home he owns in the third judicial subcircuit on the South Side where he ran in 2010, he used another address (about a mile and half away) to run for the nearby second subcircuit in 2014. That new address belongs to a Longwood Manor property that is not owned by Watkins, real estate records show. Yet the Chicago lawyer said the house is his permanent residence, and he refuses to answer questions about it.
Watkins isn’t the only judicial candidate to declare a new address just prior to running for a subcircuit seat. Records show another Democratic subcircuit judicial candidate — Robert Kuzas — changed address information on his driver’s license just months before using the new location to file with state elections officials in early December.
Kuzas, who ran unopposed and won a primary for the seventh subcircuit, said he is living in a West Loop-River North apartment for personal reasons. Real estate records show him owning and paying taxes on a Lake View address — outside the seventh subcircuit — last year.
Watkins and Kuzas both won their primaries in March, and neither face Republican challengers in the November general election. They were both deemed qualified by the major bar associations prior to the primary.
There are 15 subcircuits in Cook County, which were created decades ago to help racially and politically diversify the field for local judges. Candidates are required to live in the subcircuits in which they run.
Courthouse parking probe
Some employees at the Circuit Court of Cook County courthouse at 555 W. Harrison in Chicago are getting a free ride — or at least free parking.
Three years after a Channel 2 news report identified public employees getting away with parking illegally by throwing cop shirts and other police-related items on their dashboards, it appears that the scofflaws are at it again.
A tow zone that sits just south of the court building — that handles domestic violence-related cases — was lined with parked cars on a recent weekday, each one of them prominently displaying items inside, such as a police union handbook, a pad of unwritten citations and a safety vest.
Cook County sheriff’s officers looked into the matter after we asked about it.
“This was the first that this issue was brought to our attention since the initial issue years ago,” a spokeswoman said via email. “We immediately looked into it and today found cars with law enforcement paraphernalia parked there. Three of those vehicles had [Cook County sheriff’s office] paraphernalia and the license plates to those vehicles did not trace back to CCSO employees. The Sheriff’s Office does not condone anyone, whether a civilian or an employee, to use law enforcement officer paraphernalia to get out of parking rates. Our office will continue to look into this matter internally.”
However, the city of Chicago — not the sheriff’s office — is responsible for ticketing illegal parkers around the court building, the spokeswoman said. A Chicago police spokesman said officers “will keep an eye on the situation to ensure parking laws are enforced appropriately” and added that the department “expects officers and personnel to park legally. We expect that those who do park illegally will be ticketed” by city parking agents.
This column was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Brett Chase. He can be reached at email@example.com or (312) 821-9033.