Rahm Emanuel court case: As usual in Chicago politics, the plot thickens

Chicago awaits Illinois Supreme Court ruling on whether Rahm Emanuel can be on the mayoral ballot, amid questions about the justices’ political leanings and how they win their seats.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer, Christian Science Monitor

posted January 27, 2011 at 5:56 pm EST

Chicago — Rahm Emanuel’s fight to be on the ballot in the Chicago mayor’s race now hinges on a decision, expected any day, by the Illinois Supreme Court. But like most political battles in this state, the case is not as straightforward as it appears, with some speculating it could be colored by political allegiances on the high court itself.

A state appellate court ordered Mr. Emanuel’s name off the ballot Monday, saying he did not meet the requirements of an Illinois law mandating that all candidates reside in the municipality in which they are seeking office for at least one year. Emanuel returned to Chicago in October to run for mayor after serving as White House chief of staff for two years in Washington.

His decision rocked the political world in Chicago, where Emanuel is a front-runner and is polling at 44 percent, according to a Chicago Tribune/WGN poll released last week.

His future is now in the hands of the seven-member Illinois Supreme Court. High-court justices are elected in Illinois – and they campaign under a partisan banner – a fact that has left some residents asking whether Emanuel’s hearing will be fair or whether politics might enter into the decision.

“Rahm’s relearning how tough Chicago can be and the extent to which his status here depends on the view of seven people with whom he has had precious little contact,” says Chris Robling, a former Chicago election commissioner.

Four of the seven court justices are Democrats, three of whom received financial support from the Cook County Democratic Party, the longtime political organization in Chicago informally known as The Machine. This partisan judicial election system creates the appearance of conflict – if not real conflict of interest – in cases like Emanuel’s, say critics who want party affiliation to be removed from the slate of judicial candidates.

“For all judges, there is a strong likelihood that once you are slated by the political organization, you will become a judge. Does that political influence find its way into decisions? … We may never know,” Malcolm Rich, executive director of the Chicago Council of Lawyers, told the Chicago Tribune.

Complicating matters is that Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke is married to Chicago Alderman Edward Burke, the most powerful force on the Chicago City Council and the head of the local Democratic Party’s judicial slating committee. Mr. Burke has been a vocal critic of Emanuel and backs one of his rivals, Gery Chico, a former chief of staff to current Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Justice Burke has not said whether she will recuse herself in Emanuel’s appeal, nor has Emanuel’s legal team asked her to. In remarks at a fundraiser Wednesday, she reframed the issue as one having to do with women’s rights.

“Aren’t we beyond that? Women have minds of their own. We have spouses in every kind of business,” she said, according to Crain’s Chicago Business.

Many longtime political figures here dismiss allegations that Burke would let outside influences affect her ruling. Mr. Robling called her “a seasoned jurist who brings to her opinions a command of the facts and wisdom about the law. She will call this as she sees it.”

If the high court rules against Emanuel, his side can use Burke’s participation to attack the decision, says Washington election lawyer Chris Ashby. The Burke connection “is more about the politics of it,” he says. “Someone is laying down a marker so that if [Justice Burke] decides against Emanuel, they have grounds to cast doubt on the validity and impartiality of her decision. If you don’t lay down that marker ahead of time, it will look like sour grapes if they play that card later.”

The court’s decision can come as early as Friday. Early voting starts Monday, and the election is three weeks later, on Feb. 22.

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