DECATUR — The court case to decide perhaps the longest running disputed election drama in Macon County history — the 2018 race for Macon County sheriff — is back in court for a fifth hearing session Thursday.
One surprise development is a court docket note from the jurist hearing the case, Champaign County Circuit Court Judge Anna M. Benjamin, who is clearly unhappy about receiving “ex parte correspondence." Ex parte is a legal term usually taken to mean “improper contact.”
Benjamin in the docket note says the contact took the form of emails which she is careful to point out she had been informed of by her clerk but did not read “in whole or even in part” herself.
“The court cannot and will not consider such inappropriate ex parte correspondence,” said Benjamin in the docket note. She then states she has provided copies of it to Chris Sherer, the attorney representing Macon County Sheriff Tony Brown, a Democrat, and attorney John Fogarty, the attorney representing Brown’s fellow officer and Republican challenger, Lt. Jim Root.
“The email correspondence is enclosed with this letter for your information and the sender has now been blocked from communication with this email address,” added the judge, who notes the emails were sent to her “courtroom J email address from an unknown sender on January 24 and January 25.”
Judges do not comment outside of the courtroom on active cases and messages left with Sherer and Fogarty were not returned. Root told the Herald & Review he was aware of the emails but declined comment.
Meanwhile, the legal struggle over just who should be the rightful sheriff centers on what votes should count, and which should not. Brown had first been declared the winner by the slimmest possible margin — one vote — polling 19,655 ballots to Root’s total of 19,654.
Root immediately disputed the result and pointed to two ballots cast for him that had been found uncounted in a tabulating machine but forgotten about by election officials until after the race results had been finalized.
A court-ordered recount in July increased Brown’s victory margin by 18 votes, but also served to further muddy the waters by throwing up dozens of other disputed ballots. Benjamin will have to rule on the two found and forgotten ballots, and the fate of all the other disputed votes, before deciding whether Brown keeps his job or must yield to Root.
Root has also claimed some of the election results may have been swayed by fraud, while Brown insists he won a close race fair and square.