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Abortion big new issue in court race

Updated: March 13, 2012 8:40PM

Abortion is front and center in the Illinois Supreme Court race thanks to a federal court ruling Tuesday that gave the bipartisan, pro-choice Personal PAC a giant victory. And opened the way for unlimited fund-raising for pro-choice candidates.

That kindles a firefight over the open seat on the March 20 primary ballot. Some background:

Candidate Mary Jane Theis — an incumbent, appointed Supreme Court justice — has attracted the most money, $1,141,385.36, and endorsements from the Democratic Party and Rahm Emanuel. But, until a recent TV ad blitz, she’s been a virtual unknown.

Opponent Aurelia Pucinski, an appellate court justice, has the least — $33,529.68, but huge name recognition.

Theis’ team knows Pucinski is a genuine threat. That’s why mailers sent by Personal PAC targeting Democratic women began arriving at the homes of registered voters this week. The mailers indict Pucinski for receiving poor to mediocre ratings by some bar associations. But more importantly, for being “Not Pro-Choice.”

The mailer, while silent on Theis’ stand on abortion, lists endorsements by pro-choice organizations along with the highest endorsements by bar associations.

Pucinski plans a news conference Wednesday to address the Personal Pac issue. A Pucinski spokesman responded to the mailing by reiterating the ethical canon that judges may not assert a position on issues that may come before them.

But let’s be honest: We want our judges to be impartial and fair just as long as they rule the way we think they should rule. And raising the abortion flag meant we entered the lightning round of this competition.

Then, when U.S. District Court Judge Marvin Aspen ruled in favor of Personal PAC on Tuesday, the ante was upped significantly.

Personal PAC argued that parts of the Illinois campaign fund-raising statutes were unconstitutional thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. And that Personal PAC had a First Amendment right to spawn other political-expenditure committees — super PACs — capable of receiving unlimited contributions to wage uncoordinated, independent campaigns advocating pro-choice candidates.

In a narrow but important ruling, the court agreed.

It should be noted that there is a third major Democratic candidate in this race, Appellate Justice Joy Cunningham, who also has high bar association ratings and is the only African American running.

Her absence in the mailer should not signal “anything negative,” said Terry Cosgrove, executive director of Personal PAC. Rather, the PAC is simply endorsing an incumbent whose judicial philosophy it approved.

Cunningham’s press secretary, Kathy Posner, said Tuesday that Cunningham was not concerned: “We’re happy to let [Theis and Pucinski] duke it out while we claim victory.”

Cunningham — a former nurse for Planned Parenthood — has raised about $500,000, largely from law firms and medical providers. She is endorsed by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

Got the picture? This is a titanic battle of competing forces: name recognition, campaign donations and endorsements.

But, as Stephen Colbert has taught us, super PACs are the 1000-pound gorillas in this election.

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