"This is an election, it is not a meeting of a Sunday School class," Illinois State Bar Association president Ole Bly Pace told the Associated Press this week.

Pace was referring to the 5th District Supreme Court race as he made what could be the political understatement of the year.

The contest between Democrat Gordon Maag and Republican Lloyd Karmeier has turned into a mudfest the likes of which has rarely been seen in Illinois politics, let alone a campaign for the state's highest court.

Two weeks ago, Maag unveiled a TV ad that claimed Karmeier went too easy on some criminals who kidnapped, robbed and beat up a little old lady to within an inch of her life.

Karmeier countered with an ad that claimed Appellate Justice Maag voted to "overturn the conviction of a man who sexually assaulted a six-year-old girl."

Maag upped the ante last week with an ad that slammed Judge Karmeier for granting probation to a child-rapist.

That was too much for Karmeier, who sent out a surrogate to denounce Maag's attacks and demand that he pull the ad from the airwaves. Maag refused.

Ironically, back in August the two candidates signed a pledge in the presence of several Illinois State Bar Association honchos to, "disavow advertisements that impugn the dignity, integrity or independence of a candidate ... or which erode public trust and confidence in the dignity, integrity or independence of the judiciary."

Most people figured that the 5th District race would be about the medical malpractice insurance crisis. It still is, deep down. The people shoveling historically unprecedented piles of cash into the campaign accounts of the two southern Illinois candidates are the ones mostly effected by the issue, trial lawyers on one side and insurance, healthcare and business interests on the other.

The Republicans have effectively used the issue for months to buttress Karmeier's campaign. They make a good point. Doctors are fleeing the area to avoid skyrocketing malpractice insurance premiums. Some small hospitals have shut down. Mayors all over the region are screaming for relief. The Republicans appeared to be winning the argument, and rumor had it that Maag was trailing in the polls.

A debate over malpractice reform in the region hardest hit by the state's malpractice insurance troubles is obviously not good for the Democrats, the traditional ally of the trial lawyers. They desperately needed to change the subject.

That's why the Democrats unleashed that attack ad two weeks ago with the tag line: "Judge Lloyd Karmeier let us down by giving reduced sentences to violent criminals."

The Democrats can't win on malpractice reform, but they think they can beat Karmeier with the law and order issue. If they spend enough money on TV ads (the total amount spent by the two men will most likely exceed $5 million), they can make voters forget about malpractice insurance. It didn't hurt when the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police endorsed Maag last week.

This is also a good issue for the Democrats because Karmeier appears to have an exposed flank. Judges make thousands of decisions over the course of their careers, so it's blatantly unfair to cherry pick a few cases and claim there's a pattern. Karmeier seems to have a long record as a reasonably conservative judge. But this isn't the first time he's been accused of leniency.

Back in 2001, the Belleville News-Democrat let loose with a barrage of blistering editorials blasting Karmeier and other judges and prosecutors for granting probation to three "thugs."

"The three thugs who stole $60,000 from 92-year-old Florence Krieg during a month-long burglary spree and beat her within an inch of her life must have had a good laugh when they received lenient sentences for their vicious crime," one editorial fumed.

The Democrats quoted from the editorial in their first attack ad. They also slammed Karmeier for reducing the bond of a husband and wife accused of beating their own child to death. According to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story, prosecutors at the time opposed Karmeier's decision to cut their bond in half.

The latest Democratic ad quotes Karmeier as saying, "The court should grant leniency," towards the man who raped a four-year old girl and sodomized her two brothers.

It may not be pretty, it may be taking Karmeier's record completely out of context, and if it gets much uglier it may damage the Supreme Court's reputation for years to come, but this is probably the only way Maag can win the election.


Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at www.capitolfax.com.