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Illinois Supreme Court justices refuse recusal in gun ban challenge despite funding from defendants

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a defendant in the case, gave each of the 2 justices $1 million for their election campaigns.

Published: April 16, 2023 5:30am

The Illinois Supreme Court has denied a motion to disqualify two justices from hearing a challenge to the state's new gun ban over perceived conflicts of interest. The two justices also declined to recuse themselves.

Before Elizabeth Rochford and Mary O’Brien were elected to the Illinois Supreme Court in November 2022, Gov. J.B. Pritzker gave each of their campaign funds half a million dollars from both his campaign account and a revocable trust, totaling $1 million to each. The two justices also received six-figure donations out of a campaign fund controlled by Illinois House Speaker Emanual “Chris” Welch,” D-Hillside.

Both Pritzker and Welch are top defendants in a Macon County challenge of Illinois’ gun and magazine ban brought by state Rep. Dan Caulkins, R-Decatur. The county judge there issued a final judgment that the law is unconstitutional. The state appealed the case directly to the Illinois Supreme Court after a separate case was found by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to have a likelihood of success on the basis the law violates equal protections.

Late last month, Caulkins’ attorney filed a motion for the two justices to recuse themselves, or for the Illinois Supreme Court to disqualify them from hearing the challenge. Attorney Jerry Stocks argued “unreasonably large campaign contributions” from Pritzker and Welch “undermine public confidence” in the judiciary.

Asked in early March if the justices should recuse themselves because of the donations, Pritzker said that’s “ridiculous.”

“And these are independent judges and they didn’t go around and campaign on things that they thought would win my support for them,” Pritzker said when asked by The Center Square.

Late Friday, Rochford filed an order denying the motion.

“That contributors to my campaign committee might appear as counsel or parties before this court does not require my recusal from this case,” Rochford said. “Our supreme court rules specifically allow a judicial candidate’s campaign committee to solicit and accept reasonable campaign contributions and public support from lawyers.”

Rochford further said previous precedent “cautioned that courts must consider whether attacks on a judge’s impartiality are ‘simply subterfuge to circumvent anticipated adverse rulings.’”

“Plaintiffs cast sinister aspersions that contributions to my campaign committee were made to influence the instant litigation,” Rochford said. “Plaintiffs provide no factual basis for those aspersions.”

Rochford also denied making any pledge of support for gun control groups’ efforts.

“Despite this broad claim, plaintiffs do not cite any instance in which I voiced such support. In fact, I have made no public statement committing or appearing to commit to reach a particular result or rule in a particular way in the instant proceeding that would require me to recuse or disqualify myself from this case,” Rochford said. “In sum, plaintiffs do not suggest that I am biased or partial in this matter. Rather, plaintiffs have attempted to show bias based upon inference and supposition, to create the appearance of impropriety where none exists. I have carefully considered plaintiffs’ motion, and for the reasons set forth above, I deny plaintiffs’ motion to recuse myself from this case.”

In a separate order filed by O’Brien, she too denied the motion for recusal.

“Because plaintiffs have failed to sufficiently plead any facts that would require disqualification under Rule 2.11 of the Code of Judicial Conduct, I am required under Rule 2.7 to hear and decide the instant appeal,” O’Brien said.

A third order issued by Illinois Supreme Court filed late Friday says “because disqualification in this Court is a decision that rests exclusively within the determination of the individual judge, appellees’ request that the Court disqualify Justices Rochford and O’Brien is denied.”

The final order says Rochford and O’Brien took no part.

State Rep. Brad Halbrook, R-Shelbyville, had asked about the issue during a recent House hearing. Saturday, he told The Center Square the recusal and disqualification denials are disappointing.

“The optics don’t look very good,” Halbrook said. “This just lessens the trust that people place in government and the judiciary.”

He still held out hope the case will get a fair hearing at the state’s high court come mid-May, but is looking more at relief from the federal courts.

“Hopefully the Illinois Supreme Court will utilize the constitution and hopefully the four-plus U.S. Supreme Court cases will rule the day at the federal level.”

The federal cases were heard Wednesday in East St. Louis. A ruling on a preliminary injunction is pending.

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