Nearly $9.6 million went into the Supreme Court of Illinois elections for the second and third districts last November according to data obtained from the Illinois State Board of Elections, with many donations coming from lawyers and legal firms.
However, Democratic Governor J. B. Pritzker directed the biggest donations, a total of about $2 million to the two Democratic candidates. Both Democrats won their respective races.
Elizabeth Rochford and Mark Curran battled for the Court’s second district, and Mary O’Brien and Michael Burke vied for the third. The second district is in the Northeast part of the state, including Lake and Kane counties, and the third district is directly below it, including LaSalle and Kankakee counties.
While Wisconsin made headlines for its historically expensive judicial election with more than $45 million spent — including $16.9 million in direct candidate contributions — the millions of dollars going to the Illinois Supreme Court is still significant. But campaign finance records partly show where it came from.
“Transparency is really the most powerful tool we have,” campaign finance expert and professor emeritus Kent Redfield said in an interview.
Democrats Rochford and O’Brien both outraised their Republican opponents, data shows. Rochford raised over $3.9 million, about 5.5 times greater than Curran’s $722,000. Rochford won the race with 55.2% of the vote, with 318,281 votes to 258,014 votes.
O’Brien and Burke had a slightly closer race in terms of fundraising and votes. O’Brien raised $3.96 million, only 4.16 times greater than Burke’s $953,000. The Democrat won the election with 50.8% of the vote, with 341,529 votes to 330,649 votes.
Campaign finance laws for judicial elections vary from state to state. Illinois has contribution limits that vary by category of donor. For example, the baseline limits are $6,000 for individuals, $12,000 for corporations and labor associations and $59,900 for a political action committee (PAC).
Iowa has no specific limits, but does not allow contributions from banks, corporations or insurance companies. Similarly, Wisconsin blocks corporations and labor unions from donating but also has contribution limits.
There are also a variety of laws in Illinois determining how political donations are disclosed to the public. Recently, state legislators have made progress towards eliminating dark money in judicial elections — constituents are one step closer to knowing where all the money comes from. Dark money is political spending from a source that is unknown or unclear to citizens.
Many donors’ employers and occupations not disclosed
Finding the occupation and employer of most donors remained a tough challenge in a review by CU-CitizenAccess, as Illinois law does not always require this type of disclosure. But this information might indicate the priorities and powers at play in Illinois judicial politics, especially because Rochford and O’Brien have started their 10-year terms.
In Illinois, if a donor contributes more than $500 to a political campaign, they are required by law to disclose their employer and occupations, but some donors do not.
The State Board’s Guide to Campaign Disclosure outlines no clear penalty for failing to report occupation. Instead, it states that the recipient should make written and oral requests for this information, and if those fail to “include a statement that the committee has made a good faith effort to obtain the information.”
Of Rochford’s 827 donations, roughly 16.7% were exactly $500 — a penny more and occupation information would have been required. Only 5% of those $500 donors reported their occupation and employer.
On the other hand, of Curran’s 160 total donations, about 6% donated exactly $500. Only 10% of those donors reported their occupation and employer.
In the third district race, O’Brien had 756 donations, with 14.5% donating exactly $500. Of those donors, 5% reported their occupation and employer. Burke had 379 donations, with 18.7% donating exactly $500. Of those donors, 1.4% reported their occupation and employer.
Analysis of Rochford’s contribution data revealed that just over 24% of all donors to Rochford’s campaign reported their occupation. Comparatively, 46.9% of Curran’s donors disclosed occupation.
Analysis of the third district race data showed similar statistics. O’Brien’s campaign had around 27.6% of donors reporting their occupation, while 33.5% of Burke’s donors did the same.
CU-CitizenAccess found some occupation data for individuals and organizations whose fields of work were easily identified with Google searches and verification.
Of Rochford’s donors with known or easily-determined occupations, lawyers were responsible for 56.5% of funds, totaling at just above $900,000. This is by far the largest occupational subgroup for Rochford.
Similar to Rochford, lawyers were the biggest occupational subgroup for O’Brien. They donated over $700,000 to her campaign, making up 56.3% of the donors with known or determined occupations.
Tort reform issue
Redfield said most of this money is specifically from trial lawyers, and that “a lot of it goes back to tort reform.”
Tort reform is a term for policies that make it harder for people to sue for damage or injury. Additionally, these policies can limit the amount of compensation victims can obtain if they win.
Redfield noted that trial lawyers make money by representing people with claims of damage or injury — especially when those claims are against corporations or insurance companies.
“The trial lawyer money is ideological money,” Redfield said. “They want judges that are not in favor of restricting litigation towards those sorts of things.”
Some law firms that donated to Rochford’s campaign are Malman Law, Ankin Law, Edelson and Disparti Law Group — all from Chicago. All four firms donated to O’Brien as well.
A spot check of 20 Rochford donors whose occupations were unlisted included nine lawyers and three judges. This rate is consistent with the rest of the data.
Similarly, a spot check of 20 donors with unlisted occupations in O’Brien’s data showed 11 lawyers and one judge.
Waived contribution limits lead to big donations
The amount donated by lawyers, however, was eclipsed by donations from Governor Pritzker, who donated $500,000 to Rochford’s campaign from his personal campaign fund and an additional $500,000 from the Jay Robert Pritzker Revocable Trust.
The same happened in O’Brien’s campaign, where Pritzker donated $1,000,500 under his personal campaign fund, his Revocable Trust and his Exploratory Committee. Pritzker’s donations accounted for 25.5% of O’Brien’s campaign funds.
In Illinois, all individual contribution limits are waived for self-funded political campaigns. For a campaign to qualify as self funded, the candidate and their immediate family must contribute more than $100,000, or $250,000 for statewide offices.
“Contribution limits in Illinois are not very limited,” Redfield said. “I mean, that’s just all there is to it, because you can get around them.”
Irene Curran loaned $100,000 over two installments to her husband Mark’s campaign, officially putting him at the self-funded threshold for his race. In the third district race, Burke did the same under his and his wife’s name.
However, once one candidate in a race becomes self-funded, contribution limits are waived for their opponent as well.
This is why Pritzker was able to donate $500,000 to Rochford and O’Brien from his personal campaign fund despite their campaigns not being considered self-funded. On its own, his personal contributions would have been the largest amount from a single donor for both candidates.
However, because trusts are considered separate entities by the Illinois State Board of Elections, Pritzker was able to avoid the typical limits and donate another $500,000 from his trust to both Democrats.
According to Redfield, candidates who cross the self-funding threshold during the primary keep their self-funded status and limit waiver if they enter the general election. In turn, whoever opposes them in the general election automatically has a limit waiver.
This is what happened in Burke and O’Brien’s race — Burke became a self-funder in the primary, so neither candidate had the typical limits during the general election.
However, this situation creates another barrier to transparency.
“The way the State Board has set this up, you do not know who the self-funder was unless you go back and look at the activity in the primary,” said Redfield.
Other donors that took advantage of the self-funding rule include Fred Eychaner, a top Democratic donor who gave $100,000 to Rochford and $50,000 to O’Brien; and Richard Colburn, an investor and member of the 156th most wealthy family in the United States who donated $54,000 to Curran and $34,000 to Burke.
Taking a look at the top 10 donors for both O’Brien and Burke, O’Brien had only one donation by an individual — Pritzker — whereas Burke had six, including himself. Similar patterns persisted in the second district race, with Curran’s top 10 donors being nearly identical to Burke’s.
Another group that supported Rochford’s campaign were educators: Various teachers unions and the Illinois Federation of Teachers PAC donated a total of $284,900.
O’Brien had a similar situation, where four of her top 10 donations came from education groups, such as I.P.A.C.E and Illinois Federation of Teachers COPE.
Abortion rights an issue
Planned Parenthood Illinois Action PAC donated a total of $14,033.33 in two installments to Rochford’s campaign. Abortion rights are under fire in several U.S. states, and Rochford’s election was essential to keeping the democrat-aligned majority on the Supreme Court of Illinois.
Similarly, O’Brien had Planned Parenthood Illinois Action PAC donate to her campaign.
Rochford has not said much to explicitly support pro-choice movements. During her campaign, she emphasized her experience as a judge and her goal of providing “access to justice for all people in Illinois,” according to her Q&A with patch.com.
However, both Rochford and O’Brien ran advertisements that implied they were pro-choice by highlighting pro-choice endorsements.
Burke remained impartial on the topic. He believed that stating his opinion would be unethical, criticizing O’Brien for taking a stance on abortion.
Curran, on the other hand, has been outspoken about his political views. He unsuccessfully ran for senate as a Republican in 2020; during that campaign, he addressed issues ranging from abortion to climate change.
His judicial campaign received $200 from a donor titled “Pro Life, Pro Life.”
Insurance industry a major donor
Of donors with known occupations, people in the insurance field donated the most money to Curran’s campaign, at $109,000. The second-largest amount was from “campaign workers” — Curran’s wife, Irene, at $100,000.
Of the donors for Burke, lawyers accounted for 56.4% of donors with reported occupations. This accounted for 11.9% of the total donations, with over $113,000 of the $953,000. Donors listing “retired” under their occupation were the second largest group of donors with reported occupations.
However, similarly to Curran, the second-largest dollar amount donated by those with listed occupations came from Burke and his wife.
A random spot check of 20 Curran donors with unlisted occupations included nine lawyers. The spot check also revealed that former Illinois Comptroller, Republican Leslie Munger, donated $250 to Curran’s campaign.
For Burke, a random spot check of 20 donors with unlisted occupations included 10 lawyers and one judge.
A major player in Curran and Burke’s campaign funding was a political action committee called The Firewall Project. The group’s chair and treasurer is Thomas Datwyler, who is based in Washington, DC. According to Datwyler’s LinkedIn, he has been involved in campaign finance for years, including the creation of multiple political action committees across the country.
The Firewall Project was created in August 2022, just months before the election, and has since been dissolved. The committee supported only three candidates: Curran, Burke and DuPage County Board candidate Greg Hart.
Analysis of contribution data revealed that The Firewall Project received donations and split them between each of the three candidates, sometimes exactly equally — resulting in weird donation amounts like $333.33 — and sometimes not.
The data also shows duplicate entries in Burke and Curran’s datasets: one entry for the original donation to the Firewall Project, and one entry that includes only the subset of money from the original donation that actually went to that candidate.
Redfield said this anomaly in the records was “purely an error on the part of the people who were running it.”
Of Datwyler, Redfield said, “He thought he was essentially bundling, which you do at the federal level — you collect contributions, then you give them to the candidates… At one point, he wasn’t reporting them at all.”
Information on the Firewall Project, and even complete data for campaign contributions in these two judicial elections, was not easy to locate and sift through, and raises issues about the lack of financial transparency in courts.
“The State Board system is what it is,” Redfield said “They really need a user manual to help people access and interpret their data.”