Kicking Back

Why would Illinois Supreme Court justice Robert R. Thomas, a rugged former placekicker for the Bears, sue a small newspaper’s scrappy columnist for defamation? Some observers believe the judge wants to clear the air before making bigger political moves.

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By Thomas’s account, the move from kicking footballs to deciding cases was not all that tough. Shortly after being released by the New York Giants in 1986 following an injury, he spent a few months as a corporate attorney at KemperSports Management. He left to become a partner at the Wheaton law firm of Guerard, Kalina, Musial, Ulrich & Varchetto. Early in his career, Thomas says, he was told by a partner that he would make a good jurist because he “saw both sides of an issue.” The comment stuck with him, and he ran in the Republican primary for a DuPage County Circuit Court judgeship in 1988, narrowly beating two sitting associate judges. In the general election, when his Democratic opponent, Greg Freerksen, accused him of not having enough experience as a litigator to be a judge, Thomas countered that his experience as a football player made up the difference. “I’ve been scrutinized by the public for the last 12 years,” he told the Chicago Tribune at the time. “I’ve been booed by 60,000 people. How upset can I be if an attorney doesn’t like my opinion?” Thomas won again.

Six years later, he ran for an Illinois Appellate Court judgeship from the heavily Republican Second District. Thomas garnered two-thirds of the votes in the primary and faced no opposition in the general election. And in 2000, he ran for the state supreme court. Again he traded on his football celebrity, running on the slogan “A New Kind of Upright” and getting campaign help from the former Bears coach Mike Ditka. He carried the GOP primary against two well-heeled opponents-one of them Bonnie Wheaton, who spent about $1.5 million, outdoing him almost three to one-then had an easy time against his Democratic opponent in the general election.

In surveying the success of his judicial career, Thomas says that he used his celebrity and good ratings from bar groups as campaign assets to avoid relying on the Republican Party for support. “I have never been a part of the whole party system,” he insists.

The United Republican Fund contributed $5,000 to his primary campaign for the supreme court, an amount that Lee Newcom, a past president of the fund, characterizes as modest for a supreme court race. Thomas raised the rest of his $654,000 elsewhere. Other contributions came from corporations such as Caterpillar, Allstate, and the Torco Auto Group, and more came from old friends-Ditka kicked in $5,000.

Joe Power, a Democrat and now Thomas’s lawyer, gave him $23,000. “I thought he was fair on the bench [at the circuit and appellate levels],” Power explains. The two were classmates at Notre Dame 30 years ago. “He was a big man on campus,” Power recalls with a laugh. “I was just Joe.”

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In general, Thomas has earned good marks as a judge. Court observers say he is known for his well-written, thoughtful, and often fiercely argued opinions. Rob Warden, now the director of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, says, “I believe Thomas is an honorable, well-meaning guy.”

Greg Freerksen, the primary opponent in 1988 who accused Thomas of not having enough experience, remembers being annoyed by Thomas’s retort that kicking field goals under pressure qualified him to be a judge. But now Freerksen says, “As silly as that comment was, there’s some truth to it.”

Still, Thomas is sometimes cited as evidence of the decline in stature of the Illinois Supreme Court. An institution once known for its intellectual giants is now available to an ambitious lawyer with a recognizable name and a few moneyed connections, or so the argument goes.

One of the men often mentioned as a giant, Seymour Simon, a supreme court justice in the 1980s, does not completely agree. “People always tend to look back,” he says. Simon points out that when he was a judge, critics wished he and his colleagues were more like Walter Schaefer, who was on the court from 1951 to 1976. But during Schaefer’s tenure, Simon points out, “two judges had to resign in disgrace.”

Simon expresses confidence in today’s court, but he thinks the system of electing judges should be tossed out in favor of merit-based appointments. “My support for merit selection is not that the election system corrupts the court,” he says. Rather, Simon thinks that many good lawyers “do not want to run the gauntlet of a fundraising campaign or a vigorous election.” If Illinois eliminated the election system, Simon reasons, “you’d have a higher caliber of attorney seeking appointment.”

But turning to merit selection would require an amendment to the Illinois Constitution, and factions within both political parties have too many competing interests for a reform plan to make headway. Meanwhile, there is no end in sight to the escalating cost and politicization of judicial campaigns. In the supreme court race decided this past November, the two candidates in southern Illinois’s Fifth District raised a record sum-a combined $8.5 million-inspiring the eventual winner, the Republican Lloyd Karmeier, to tell the Associated Press, “Basically that’s obscene for a judicial race. . . . How can people have faith in the system?”

Against this backdrop, some observers suspect that charges of political wheeling and dealing by judges are likely to escalate.

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