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Governor’s proposed ban is radical and unconstitutional — and bad business for Illinois

By JOHN COONEY
    When Illinoisans went to the polls last November, many thought that in choosing Bruce Rauner they were selecting a pragmatic, get-it-done business executive who would use his financial smarts to help the state right its listing fiscal ship and work in a bipartisan fashion with the General Assembly to strike reasonable compromises addressing Illinois’ most significant challenges. Although lacking specificity as to what he would actually do once he was governor, such was the public image that Rauner projected with the help of a record $67 million in campaign spending, most of it on television advertisements.
p05 cooneyCooney    Instead, we see now that underneath the congenial, seemingly mild-mannered and smiling exterior lurks an extremist ideologue whose views are far from the Illinois political mainstream. Voters are the victims of a colossal bait-and-switch – a practice abhorred by ethical businesses that should no more be tolerated in someone holding our state’s highest office.  
    Rauner claims a mandate for radical change he never saw fit to mention during his campaign while ignoring the fact that voters returned Democratic supermajorities to both legislative chambers. He devoted his first 10 weeks in office to crusading against labor unions, demonizing trial lawyers, and pitching a slash-and-burn state budget that – according to impartial observers – is severely unbalanced to the tune of $3 billion, relies on phantom savings from a pension reform plan that has not yet been enacted and which, in any case, likely would be struck down by the courts, and cuts human service and health programs that actually save taxpayers money by keeping people out of more expensive hospitals and nursing homes.
    The man whose campaign ads last year cast him as a cheery suburban husband and father – driving a beat-up van, playfully teasing his wife (who proudly proclaimed herself a Democrat) beside him on the couch – is now the incendiary chief executive trying to prevent workers from collectively advocating for better wages and working conditions, crush the protections afforded injured people by our civil justice system, and tear down the public services helping hundreds of thousands of Illinoisans tread just above poverty.
    Taken together, his platform is geared to benefit the wealthiest among us by allowing them to skirt accountability for legal wrongdoing and curb the costs of wages and benefits paid to employees. All the while, he would starve the government by depriving critical state programs and services of the revenue they require to function. Should Rauner have his way, the extremely rich will keep more money, those not so fortunate will be left to fend for themselves, and the middle class will see a further erosion in its spending power.
    This is the prism through which to consider Rauner’s proposal to prevent trial lawyers from contributing donations to judicial candidates. Putting aside for a moment the obvious unconstitutionality of such a move – precluding a member of a single profession, race or religion from participating in an election is anathema to fundamental democratic principles and is the hallmark of a demagogue – it’s no accident that he would seek to prevent a lawyer representing a plaintiff paralyzed in a car accident from supporting a candidate for judge, yet would propose no such restriction on a lawyer defending the insurance company of the driver who caused the crash.
    This proposal has nothing to do with rectifying “corruption,” as Rauner has claimed, but everything to do with giving insurance companies and other corporate behemoths unchecked influence over judicial elections. Indeed, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the so-called Institute for Legal Reform, its front group, have publicly stated their goal of electing judges who will render verdicts supporting their big business donors – at the expense of the health and safety of everyday Americans.
    The simple fact is that, under the Illinois Constitution, voters are responsible for electing judges. In recent years, many of these judicial races have become just as expensive as any other electoral campaign. The candidates rely on campaign support to help their election efforts.  
    Large, deep‐pocket insurance companies and other special interests already dominate our political process, including judicial elections. Rauner’s plan would close the deal for his allies, muting the voice of the advocates for men, women and children who suffered due to others’ negligence or wrongdoing, and shifting the risk and responsibility for caring for the injured onto taxpayers rather than the parties that cause their injury. The bitter irony is that Rauner also seeks to cut massive holes in the social safety net
into which these forsaken individuals would fall.
    When very wealthy citizens of our state are injured, sickened or disabled due to someone else’s wrongdoing, they need not worry as to whether the resources will be there to care for them. They won’t face the possibility of destitution, losing their home and life savings. But, that’s not the case for most Illinoisans, who must turn to our courts for help if they are to have any hope of avoiding ruin when they are unable to work or care for themselves.
    An individual whose perspective is shaped by a career in cutthroat private equity now governs our state. He was not a businessperson in the sense of a plucky franchisee, working long hours side-by-side with his employees. He was not an inventor-innovator, the custodian of a multi-generational family business, or an entrepreneur who took risks and put his heart and soul into building a manufacturing business that employed dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people.
    No, Rauner bought and squeezed other companies – tossing workers from their jobs, forcing creditors into bankruptcy court, and compromising the quality of those businesses’ services – all in the name of boosting his phenomenally huge returns. It’s a short-term approach to business rather than one that builds enduring, long-term value. We must recognize that the application of Rauner’s particularly destructive business philosophy is wholly inappropriate for state government and our courts, and demand lawmakers reject his race-to-the-bottom policies that will benefit very few and leave most of us worse off.
    John D. Cooney is the president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, a statewide organization whose members represent injured consumers and workers.