By CARL GREEN
Collinsville, IL – Everybody knows what’s on the ballot this November – the presidential election, state officers and a noisy bunch of state legislative and Congressional battles.
But southern Illinois voters have another choice to make that could have a profound effect on their lives for decades to come – the make-up of the 5th District Appellate Court.
This court, with its seven members, meets at the crossroads town of Mt. Vernon and reviews circuit judges’ decisions from no less than 37 downstate counties – more than a third of the state’s total.
Some of those cases are hum-drum domestic and criminal affairs, but more than a few are precedent-setting, work-related and potentially union-busting.
For decades, a majority of judges on the panel have been union supporters, solid enough to take for granted as a bulwark against corporate and Republican attempts to undercut workers’ rights.
But this election, the numbers could tip the other way. Two seats are up. The Republican candidate for one of them, James Moore, has already been appointed to another seat on the panel.
So if Moore wins, that seat will be open again and a Republican judge would almost certainly be appointed because the region’s delegate on the Illinois Supreme Court, Lloyd Karmeier, a Republican, would nominate the replacement.
If that happens and the second Republican candidate, John Barberis, also wins, the majority would shift to the union-busters, and there’s no telling what havoc could result.
TWO STRONG CANDIDATES
Fortunately, Democrats are running two strong and accomplished, union-supporting circuit judges for the seats – Brad Bleyer of Carbondale in Williamson County and Jo Beth Weber of Mt. Vernon of Jefferson County. Both were endorsed by the AFL-CIO.
“We have to make sure those two judges get elected,” Madison County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan told the Southwestern Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council recently.
“If we do not, the Republicans will take the appellate bench, and that’s going to be a disaster for Labor. So you have to think about the appellate court in this election. It’s very important that they get elected. They’re both great people.”
There was potential for confusion during the primary campaign when both Weber and Bleyer appeared on the ballot for the same judicial panel, but they were actually running for two seats individually, not against each other. It should be more clear on the general election ballot that they are running against Republican opponents.
Another quirk of judiciary elections is that candidates can’t go around making promises and pledges. They have to limit themselves to explaining what their priorities are and what their backgrounds are like.
But do not be deceived – this is in part an election over whether southern Illinois workers will have unions in the future, and on that issue, the parties couldn’t be more different.
Bleyer, using careful language, explained it this way at a recent meeting of the Greater Madison County Federation of Labor: “In this state, and in this country, there is a very well-financed, very well-organized and very fierce effort to destroy Organized Labor.
“Those issues that are going to be coming up before the appellate court in the next couple of years are extremely important to everybody in this room,” he added.
“If Judge Weber and I lose those two seats to our opponents, then the majority of the judges who are going to be making those rulings, on issues that are so important to everybody in this room, are not going to be people who think like us in this room.
“The rulings are going to be made by a majority of judges who are supportive of the governor and are supportive of this effort to destroy Organized Labor.”
Bleyer and Weber would be just plain-old better judges, too, according to the Illinois State Bar Association Judicial Advisory Poll, in which all bar members in the district may give their opinions about judicial candidates. Candidates must be endorsed by 65 percent of respondents to win “recommended” status.
In this poll, both Democrats scored quite highly – 92.4 percent for Weber and 96.9 percent for Bleyer – while both of the Republicans had relatively low scores and were not recommended, Moore with 61 percent and Barberis with 43 percent.
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- Jo Beth Weber, a Democrat, earned her law degree at the University of Illinois and subsequently worked in a general practice firm, as an appellate prosecutor, as a law clerk for appellate justices and in the state appellate defender’s office. She was elected circuit judge in Jefferson County (including Mt. Vernon) and has served since 2012, creating youth and drug courts.
James Moore, her Republican opponent, was appointed to the Appellate Court in 2014 and had been circuit judge in Williamson County. He has also had his own firm and was Carbondale city attorney. His law degree is from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.
- Brad Bleyer, a Democrat, earned his law degree from SIUC, worked 20 years as a trial attorney and has been a circuit judge since 2004. He has also been a teacher and coach of youth sports. He was supported by Labor in both his 2004 election and his 2012 retention. “The people who are with Organized Labor in the area where I’m from know me and have supported me,” he said.
John Barberis, his Republican opponent, earned his law degree from St. Louis University, worked in private practice and as an assistant state’s attorney in Madison County before his election as circuit judge in 2014.
Weber’s campaign website says she decides cases depending on the facts and the law that applies and that she “takes her responsibilities seriously and relies on principles of fairness, justice and decency for all.”
She and Bleyer have been working relentlessly on this election, constantly appearing at union meetings and public events.
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NOT ABOUT GUNS
Bleyer noted that he has found many potential voters thinking of choosing Republicans on the assumption that they are more supportive of gun rights. But that’s not necessarily true, he pointed out.
“I’ve been a hunter for over 40 years, and I’m not the kind of hunter that has somebody load my gun and call the shots and tell me when to shoot the ducks,” he said. “Gun ownership is a very important right to me. I cherish it myself, and it’s a right that should be protected.
“But the most important issue is making sure that when you go to work, you’re paid well, your Project Labor Agreements are upheld, and your collective bargaining agreements are upheld,” he added. “Those are the important issues that are going to be decided on that appellate court.”
A Labor-supporting circuit judge in Madison County, Bill Mudge, who is up for retention in this election, spoke up for both of the candidates at a recent Federation meeting.
“I think Jo Beth Weber’s an excellent candidate, as is Brad Bleyer,” he said. “I’ve met them both. They’re very hard-working, they’re good judges and they enjoy excellent reputations.”
Dan Simmons, president of United Steelworkers Local 1899, which represents most of the Granite City Steel workers, said the importance of supporting Labor-friendly candidates can be seen in the recent efforts of state representatives Dan Bieser and Jay Hoffman to extend the workers’ unemployment benefits.
“When you support Labor-friendly candidates, that’s what you get – people who stand behind you when you need them,” Simmons told the Federation.
ED SMITH VIEW
One of the nation’s top Labor leaders, Ed Smith, CEO of Ullico (Union Labor Life Insurance Co.) and a southern Illinois native, gave a powerful endorsement of Weber and Bleyer at the Sept. 1 awards dinner of the Southwestern Illinois Central Labor Council in Belleville.
Smith’s point was that the judiciary, at all levels, federal and state, wields enormous power over working people.
“On the federal level, the federal bankruptcy court can go in and take away the collective bargaining agreement and take away the union contract,” Smith said. “At the same time, they’ll give the CEO his bonuses and all the stock options. The same judge will take away the retirees’ health care and their pensions.
“We have to have judges who call balls and strikes fairly. That’s what we’re looking for. These two candidates – Judge Bleyer and Judge Weber – will call balls and strikes fairly on the appellate court. They will give working people a chance. They won’t be in the pocket of anybody.”
Voting for judges can take extra effort because they are usually last on the ballot, but it’s well worth it, Smith added.
“You’ve got to go all the way down the ballot to find those judges, but those judges are critical,” he said. “They can make or break everything we stand for as a Labor Movement and as working people. So please, we’ve got to get the Movement out and we’ve got to elect those judges to the appellate court!”