How a Former GOP Staffer Changed the Supreme Court

Supreme Court Justice Tom Kilbride barely survived a “vote no” effort on his retention to the state’s highest court in 2010. Through much of 2020, his retention to a third ten-year term on the court seemed as if it wouldn’t have serious opposition. Republicans were underfunded, unorganized, and had enough fronts to fight on, defending seats in the suburbs and trying to stop Governor Pritzker’s proposed graduated income tax amendment.

While we weren’t watching, Nick Klitzing was.

Klitzing, a former Deputy Campaign Manager for Governor Bruce Rauner’s re-election campaign and former Executive Director of the Illinois Republican Party, says he started thinking about making a challenge to Kilbride’s retention after southern Illinois justice Lloyd Karmeier barely survived retention in 2014.

Klitzing says the last straw was when Kilbride voted against and wrote the opinion removing the so-called “Fair Maps” amendment from the ballot in 2016. The amendment would have set up an independent commission to draw legislative districts.

He says the Fair Maps Amendment case was “rock solid” and even argued in front of the Supreme Court by a highly regarded lawyer named Lori Lightfoot. He says the decision made it clear the political influence House Speaker Michael Madigan had on the Supreme Court.

“In the most important cases that can keep Madigan in power, they know who the boss is,” Klitzing said.

Klitzing, a former prosecutor who now works with a public affairs consulting firm, says he began laying the groundwork for an organized effort to block Kilbride’s retention in 2019.

He says much of the discussions with party insiders were conducted with the Illinois Republican Party, but were never given much attention by media, donors, or Democrats, because of the perception the GOP was too weak to organize the campaign to defeat Kilbride.

Klitzing says he used western Illinois Republican activist Jon Zahm as a “decoy” to take attention away from his growing efforts when Zahm set up his own anti-Kilbride committee. Klitzing says the effort got a Chicago reporter to “take the bait” and deflect attention on his efforts. He also teamed up with former State Representative, University of Illinois professor, and newspaper columnist Jim Nowlan to launch the “Citizens for Judicial Fairness” committee. Nowlan has written many columns about the partisan nature of the supreme court over the years.

“I assumed Kilbride would go up on TV after Labor Day,” said Klitzing.

But when he didn’t, Klitzing moved into action, raising the money necessary to start an onslaught against Kilbride. The donors included billionaire Ken Griffin.

The winning message? Kilbride’s ties to powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Klitzing says his polling in May showed Madigan with a 12% approval rating in Kilbride’s 21-county district stretching from the Quad Cities to Kankakee. After Madigan was tied to a Commonwealth Edison bribery scheme, a late summer poll showed Madigan’s approval in the district had dropped to just 5%.

“We realized we can make this all about Madigan. Madigan is all over the news,” Klitzing said of late-summer news cycles. “The connection between Kilbride and Madigan is rock solid, and you don’t even have to explain it. Fair maps, term limits. It was all about money Madigan gave to Kilbride and Kilbride deciding on cases to Madigan’s advantage.”

They had their message, they had some money, but Klitzing kept his powder dry for a few weeks longer.

“We wanted to wait as late as we possibly could and surprise them,” Klitzing said.

So Klitzing started dropping anti-Kilbride mail into mailboxes when early voting opened in late September, and went on TV in October. But his concern was that Kilbride was already running ads on Chicago and Peoria television.

$4.5 million dollars later and more Madigan references than you can shake a stick at, and Kilbride was done.

Klitzing doesn’t believe his effort will have a long-term effect on Supreme Court races because, he says, they’re already political.

“Supreme Court Justices have already shown [in controversial decisions] that they’re political animals who hide behind non-partisanship when they’re elected,” said Klitzing. “But they’re already inherently controlled by Madigan and trial attorneys.”

Klitzing says he wants an independent judiciary.

But it wasn’t the only Supreme Court seat Klitzing and his big-money donors got involved with.

He said polling showed southern Illinois Supreme Court candidate David Overstreet was down in his campaign against Democrat Judy Cates. Overstreet had an issue raising money and wasn’t buying TV time.

So Klitzing moved money to southern Illinois to run a slew of negative ads against Cates.

“[Overstreet] could have been beaten,” Klitzing said. “We 100% swung that race.”

He says polling showed Cates was picking up 20% of Republicans and a majority of independents, and she had to be defined negatively for Overstreet to win. Overstreet’s numbers were also struggling due to negative ads that alleged Overstreet released a child rapist from prison.  

Does Klitzing think he’s changed the Supreme Court?

“This was an effort to level the playing field,” he said. We should be voting for an independent judiciary that is separate from politics. It is not in the best interest of the public to have a Supreme Court that accepts tons of money from trial attorneys and Madigan and the political parties. [We want] some independence and not just a party person.”