O’Brien wins; Democrats, women increase high court majority

The Illinois Supreme Court building in Springfield, Illinois.
The Illinois Supreme Court building in Springfield, Illinois.(Mike Miletich)
Published: Nov. 11, 2022 at 9:32 PM CST
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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Illinois Appellate Court Justice Mary O’Brien has won election to the state Supreme Court, increasing the court’s Democratic majority in a year that Republicans hoped they would swing control their way.

The Associated Press called the race late Friday, giving O’Brien a slim victory over Michael Burke, a Republican appointed to the Supreme Court to fill a vacancy last year.

Combined with this week’s victory by Elizabeth Rochford, a Lake County associate circuit judge, Democrats increased their court majority from 4-3 to 5-2. Rochford defeated Mark Curran, a former prosecutor and the longest-serving sheriff in Lake County history.

Along with Democrats, women will have solid control of the court. With Chief Justice Mary Jane Theis winning retention to a second 10-year term, women now hold five of the court’s seven positions.

The election results were a blow to Republicans, who were hopeful of capturing both seats and shifting the court’s political lean to the right for the first time since the 1970s. It became all the more important after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 50-year-old Roe v. Wade decision which legalized abortion, raising the profile of state supreme court campaigns nationally.

Both races were to decide voters’ preferences to fill vacancies occurring in 2020 with the retirement of Justice Bob Thomas, a Republican, and the unprecedented defeat of Democrat Thomas Kilbride, who failed to get the 60% of the vote needed to be retained for a third 10-year term.

Republicans engaged in the most expensive anti-judicial retention campaign in history to oust Kilbride, opening the door for a competitive race for an open seat this year. But that was countered by Democrats in the General Assembly who, for the first time since 1964, redrew election districts for the court and realigned Kilbride’s Republican-leaning district.

Michael Burke was appointed to replace Thomas. Kilbride’s replacement, Robert Carter, chose not to seek election, opening the door for O’Brien and Curran.