A Cook County judge on Thursday placed a Democrat and two Republicans vying for a spot on the Illinois Supreme Court back on the ballot after the Illinois State Board of Elections last month kicked them off for not having enough nominating signatures.
The ruling by Cook County Judge Maureen Hannon is the latest twist in an unusual saga to fill a vacant seat last held by Justice Robert Thomas, a former Chicago Bears place-kicker who retired from the bench in 2020.
Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering, a Democrat, and former Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran and Illinois Appellate Judge Susan Hutchinson, both Republicans, were removed from the ballot last month when the electoral board agreed with objectors who argued the three candidates didn’t acquire enough signatures from registered voters in the 2nd Judicial District, which covers a swath of northern Illinois that includes DeKalb, Kendall, Kane, Lake and McHenry counties.
The electoral board’s decision overruled a hearing officer who agreed with the candidates that they had, in fact, acquired enough signatures and ruled their names should appear on the June 28 primary ballot.
In her six-page ruling, Hannon wrote that disagreements over how many signatures were needed was the result of different interpretations of the law and noted that running for office is “a substantial right not lightly to be denied.”
“Ballot access laws in Illinois are to be interpreted liberally and impediments to candidacy are to be strictly construed,” Hannon wrote.
The ruling ratchets up the competition for the seat, which now has seven candidates — four Republicans and three Democrats. Rotering is one of the better-known candidates for the seat. She ran statewide four years ago when she made an unsuccessful bid for Illinois attorney general.
“This effort to distract from the real issues that matter to voters was unsuccessful,” Rotering said in a statement. “Fighting for fairness is why I am in this race.”
At issue was the interpretation of the law that lays out whether judicial candidates have enough petition signatures to run for the court. A specific mathematical formula is used based on the results of the previous governor’s race to determine how many signatures are needed. But the law also states a candidate must get at least 500 signatures.
Lawyers for Rotering, Curran and Hutchinson argued continuously that it would be improper to determine the candidates eligibility for the ballot based on the results of the 2018 general election because the new 2nd Judicial District boundaries were redrawn last year by the Illinois General Assembly. So instead, the lawyers applied the mathematical formula to the 500-signature requirement and determined the candidates only needed at least 334 signatures.
“In this particular election cycle the circulation period was reduced from 90 days to 60 days, and as a result of that change all of the signature requirements across the board were reduced by a third,” Ed Mullen, an attorney on the candidates’ legal team, argued before Hannon during a Zoom-based court hearing on Thursday. “So when we talk about 500 in this statute it is the equivalent of 334 signatures for purposes of this election cycle only.”
Hutchinson ended up with 702 valid signatures, while Curran received 670 and Rotering got 669. But the objectors who contested their candidacies argued the candidates’ lawyers misinterpreted case law to support their argument, contending instead that Rotering needed at least 757 to run as a Democrat and the two others each needed 791 to run as Republicans.
That assertion from the objectors is based on the election results from the 2018 general election for five counties that comprise the new boundaries of the 2nd Judicial District. John Fogarty, a lawyer for the objectors, argued in court on Thursday that the law allows for the signature tabulations to be based on the election results from each county, regardless of whether a judicial district was later redrawn.
“Every single time a Supreme Court justice or an appellate court justice runs, yes, the state board goes to the counties and calculates those numbers,” said Fogarty. “Even I could do it … it’s excruciatingly simple.”
Hannon, however, still ruled for the candidates, citing case law that supports her view that basing a tabulation on a minimum of 500 signatures is “not unreasonable and therefore has a presumption of correctness.”
Also vying to succeed Thomas are Republicans John Noverini and Daniel Shanes, as well as Democrats Rene Cruz and Elizabeth Rochford.