By CARL GREEN
Belleville – At a time when the all-important southern Illinois appellate court is in danger of tipping hard toward anti-Labor conservatives, one of St. Clair County’s most respected and accomplished attorneys is stepping up to push back.
Kevin Hoerner, 55, a partner in Becker, Hoerner, Thompson & Ysursa, of Belleville, and a long-time public litigator, is the only declared Democratic candidate for the 5th District Appellate Court seat, now sought by an appointed Republican, David Overstreet of Mt. Vernon.
The winner will replace highly respected Democratic Judge Richard Goldenhersh, who is retiring.
Hoerner spoke earlier this month to the Southwestern Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council. He noted that while he is a first-generation attorney, he is from a working-class background, one of 11 children of a truck driver and his wife in East St. Louis.
“I am a product of a working-class family,” he said. “I know a little bit about what it takes to work hard. I was taught by my father what hard work means, what it takes to raise a family and the sacrifices you make in raising your family.”
The life-long resident of St. Clair County graduated from the University of Illinois in 1984 and received his law degree from St. Louis University in 1987. He is a past president of both the East St. Louis and St. Clair County Bar Associations. He handles civil litigations in district court and federal court and pitches in as an Illinois assistant attorney general and St. Clair County assistant state’s attorney. He is also the counsel for Stookey Township and Fairview Heights.
The seven-member appellate panel handles appeals of cases decided in county-level district courts, often involving work-related and labor union issues. For decades, Democrats have dominated the panel, but that has changed in recent years, and it now has a 4-3 Republican majority.
One quirk of state law is that the seventh member is not elected but appointed by the region’s representative on the Illinois Supreme Court, who is a Republican, Lloyd Karmeier. Karmeier’s practice has been to appoint Republicans to the seventh seat who then run for openings among the other six. If the so-called “incumbent” wins, Karmeier can then appoint yet another Republican to the seventh seat.
So Overstreet cannot lose his job in this election. If Hoerner wins, Overstreet can simply continue as the appointed judge and the 4-3 split will be maintained. If he defeats Hoerner, the split would become 5-2 against Labor after Karmeier appoints another Republican.
“Isn’t there something a little bit wrong with that?” Hoerner said. “For crying out loud, we’ve got to keep this seat. We can’t let the balance shift even further to the right.”
CRUCIAL TO UNIONS
Dale Stewart, executive secretary-treasurer of the Trades Council, said electing Hoerner will be crucial to unions in coming years.
“We don’t really take seriously how important this appellate judge position is,” he told the Council. “We don’t realize the importance of it.”
Stewart recalled a time when he had three cases as a union rep before a county judge, who ruled against the union in all three. Stewart was able to take them to the Appellate Court and have those decisions reversed.
“It was all about arbitration – giving the membership the right to arbitrate. It’s so important to us,” he said. “Those three cases would have been devastating because it would have taken away our right to arbitrate cases.”
‘ONE OF YOUR OWN’
The state is split up into five appellate districts, with the 5th District covering 37 counties in southern and central Illinois. St. Clair County and Madison County are the largest and account for 40-45 percent of the vote. Republicans won two seats on the court last November.
Hoerner said he is already traveling the district to build support, especially among Democrat Party leaders and labor groups.
“I want everyone’s support, but I also know who is driving the bus,” he said. “I promise that when you elect me, you will have elected one of your own.”
Voters are telling him to give them a fair shake in the courtroom, he said.
“What is most important to the voter in terms of judicial candidates is that they want fairness. That almost seems too obvious,” he said. “Who cuts the barber’s hair? And who ever asks a judge, ‘Can you be fair?’ It ought to go without saying, but maybe it doesn’t.
“When your pensions are at stake, and those cases are up on appeal, is justice going to be blind? I’d like to think it would,” he said.
SHIFTING THE BALANCE
Democrats need to build a strong campaign to protect Goldenhersh’s seat and set the stage for a future majority on the appellate panel, Hoerner said.
“It’s hard to get people excited about a judicial race, and I get it – those parts of the ballot are at the very end. Some people don’t even finish the ballot,” he said. “But when I woke up last November, on the day after the election, for the first time since the courts were reorganized in Illinois in the early ’60s, the balance of the court had shifted, and we now have a Republican-controlled appellate court. I never thought I would live to see that day, and it’s here.”
Hoerner recalled somebody asking him, in jest, if he was running for judge because he was “tired” from his work as an attorney and wanted something easier. He didn’t find it very funny.
“I’ll tell you who gets tired – the truck driver working 16-18 hours a day because he’s got 11 mouths to feed, or the laborer or the fitter, or any one of the other trades represented in this room, working six 10-hour shifts because they’ve got to work when the work’s there.
“Those people get tired. I said, ‘I’m not tired, I feel as though I’m just getting started.’ ”