Some people get into politics to pick fights. Others prefer cultivating peace.
Will County Associate Judge Michael Powers says he wants to be elected to Illinois’ Third Appellate District because he enjoys the challenge of peacefully settling legal disputes.
“When I was in private law practice, I worked as an arbitrator and was requested often to be the lead on three-person arbitration panels,” he told Illinois Review recently during an interview at his downtown Joliet office. “I was told I did a good job in that role. I enjoy the resolution of disputes.”
Appointed in 2003 to serve as a Will County associate judge, Powers is in the middle of his first political campaign and is discovering the challenges of running for an office that restricts him from personally soliciting campaign donations or openly expressing his opinions on topics that may come before him at the Appellate Court level.
[Judge Michael Powers is pictured above right of State Senator Ed Petka (R-Plainfield)]
“I have a finance committee composed mostly of lawyers who do the fundraising because the judicial ethics law prevents me from doing that,” Powers said. “I also have to steer around answering questions that could indicate my political leanings on issues.”
If he improperly indicated his views, Powers said he could be asked to recuse himself on the very decisions upon which he would want to weigh in most.
Then, other than hearsay, how are voters supposed to gain information about how a judge views the law and what kind of judge he or she would be if elected?
The process itself of selecting potential associate judge candidates acts as a screening process, Powers said.
When a vacancy develops, the Illinois Supreme Court posts a request for applicants. Those applications are run through credit and criminal history checks. Personal interviews are conducted by local bar associations, and recommendations for higher level judgeships are made as a result of those interviews. Judges collaborate with the information obtained in hand, and two finalists are selected. The judges open a public comment period on the two finalists. Finally, if six of the 11 circuit judges agree, an appointment is made, and the associate judgeship is filled.
"I didn't ask how many voted for me," Powers said of his associate judge appointment. "All I know is that I got the job."
Judge Powers’ current duties as an associate resemble the historical circuit riding judge’s. He travels about to various villages to hear ordinance complaints, from Romeoville to Lockport. “In Lincoln’s day, it was done on horseback,” he said. When he’s not out on the circuit, Powers hears divorce cases at the Will County courthouse.
Marriage is one hot button issue on which the judge has discreetly expressed his opinion. Evidently, Judge Powers’ religious beliefs and his experience first in litigation and then in overseeing divorce settlements led him to believe marriage should be between a man and a woman.
At the urging of a colleague circulating Protect Marriage Illinois petitions, Barb Kneynsberg, Powers listed his name among those who want the state legislature to consider amending the constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman.
No matter how hard one presses, Powers will not state his views on key political issues, but doesn’t hesitate to point out that in contrast with his opponent, he is not endorsed by pro-abortion groups and doesn’t intend to seek their support.
He does, however, tout those who endorse him, such as conservative Republican State Senators Ed Petka (Plainfield) and State Senator Gary Dahl (Morris), both whose districts lie within the Third Appellate District. And last month, Judge Powers visited with the Illinois State Rifle Association of Will County to seek their support.
Frustrating as it may be, gathering information in such a way may be the only way voters may discern how Judge Powers leans on any given political issue. And it may be that the very frustration that leads many to simply avoid judges' races is the very thing that ultimately elects one who holds dear interpreting the Constitution and upholding it in its original form.
In Part 2, Judge Powers will discuss the importance of the Third Appellate District race, share the most fulfilling part of his job as a judge as well as the most disappointing part and why, one day, he was referred to as “a holy man. . .”