MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Down the Illinois ballot, voters will find the name Thomas Kilbride. He's running to maintain his seat on the Illinois Supreme Court. And big money donors are betting the best way to shape the state's policies is to load money into this judicial race.

A warning to our listeners: This piece contains some violent language.

NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Local political candidates and religious leaders are sitting side by side at the Kankakee Country Club, digging into biscuits and gravy from the buffet and waiting for this annual prayer breakfast to begin.

Mike Bossert is chairman of the county board.

Mr. MIKE BOSSERT (Chairman, Kankakee County Board): October in Illinois. Sunshine, cool weather, harvest is done. Five dollar corn. Life is great, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOHNSON: Actually, things could be better for native son Tom Kilbride, back here in his hometown an hour south of Chicago. Kilbride is trying to figure out how to win another 10-year term on the state's highest court.

(Soundbite of a click and a horn)

JOHNSON: Kilbride opens the trunk to his white sedan and describes what's inside.

Justice THOMAS KILBRIDE (Supreme Court, Illinois): I've got a group of yard signs and I've got bumper stickers.

JOHNSON: Is this kind of like your campaign office?

Justice KILBRIDE: It's the road office.

JOHNSON: Despite appearances, Kilbride's campaign is far from a bare bones operation. He's raised more than $2 million, largely from the Illinois Democratic Party, teachers unions and other labor groups.

Experts say this race is now the second most expensive judicial retention campaign in history. Retention, meaning he's running to keep his court seat without an opponent. That's not to say the justice isn't facing opposition.

(Soundbite of YouTube Video)

Mr. ED MURNANE (Chairman, Illinois Civil Justice League): But it became obvious that Thomas Kilbride not only had the worst record on civil issues, he also had a terrible record on criminal issues.

JOHNSON: That's Ed Murnane, head of the pro business Illinois Civil Justice League. He spoke in an event posted on YouTube. Murnane canceled an interview with NPR, and then didn't respond when we asked to reschedule. He also runs Justpac, which has collected more than $600,000 for the anti-Kilbride campaign. That money is paying for negative radio ads against Kilbride, such as this one. A warning: it includes violent content from actors pretending to be criminals.

(Soundbite of radio ad)

Unidentified Man #1: I was convicted of sexual assault of three different children.

Unidentified Man #2: I was convicted of sexual assault on a woman and her 10-year-old daughter.

Unidentified Man #3: Justice Thomas Kilbride sided with us over law enforcement or our victims.

JOHNSON: The ads have been controversial. Some radio stations have pulled them. The state bar association and retired judges have called them unfair and inaccurate. Kilbride offers a more personal response.

Justice KILBRIDE: I think they're deplorable. They're horrific. I think they're vile.

JOHNSON: Kilbride says those criminal cases dealt with procedural issues. And none of the defendants were released from jail or got lighter sentences because of his rulings. But, he says, the bigger issue is not about him at all.

Justice KILBRIDE: If we are going to allow the courts to be politicized to this degree, where there's more and more big time money coming in, it's going to ruin the court system and we might as well shut down the third branch. I mean that seriously.

JOHNSON: Kilbride is worried about money in the race. But he's significantly out-raised the business groups campaigning against him. He says this is a fight he didn't start.

Justice KILBRIDE: Nobody would be raising any money, but for the announcement months ago, if not a year ago, when Ed Murnane made it clear that he was going to raise a million and a half dollars to come after me. Now what am I to do, lay down and roll over and just get trampled?

Ms. CINDI CANARY (Illinois Campaign for Political Reform): I worry a lot about the aftermath of campaigns like this.

JOHNSON: Cindi Canary follows judicial races at the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

Ms. CANARY: We've got this notion embedded in our history that judges, when they decide a case, are supposed to look at the facts of the case, and not be swayed by campaign contributions or whom they know. But when you're talking about this kind of money, the problem is, does the public buy it?

JOHNSON: Canary says judicial races all over the country are flush with money from special interests from both Democrats and Republicans. She says that's because donors have done their own cost benefit analysis. The conclusion? If they're really looking to change a state's laws, they may get the most for their money by targeting, not the state house, but the Supreme Court.

Ms. CANARY What's the best way to do it? Well I can try to change the legislature which may have, you know, 200 to 300 members or, hey, there's a court that's got seven to nine members.

JOHNSON: On November 2nd, Tom Kilbride will find out whether Illinois voters heard his message and the money behind it, or whether the race for the state's highest court got drowned out by all the other political noise.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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