A former Dentons associate is among the Democratic challengers vying to unseat a Chicago-area member of Congress in the Illinois primary March 17.
Kristine Schanbacher, who hit pause on her Big Law career for the run late last year, is hoping a platform of reforming the nation’s civil and criminal justice systems will sway voters to back her instead of U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, who has handily won every electoral contest he’s faced since 1996.
Among other points, Schanbacher is advocating for the federal legalization of marijuana and ending the U.S. war on drugs. She also wants to reduce the U.S. prison population and end what she calls the “prison-industrial complex,” and she opposes programs that distribute excess military equipment to civilian police departments.
Her time doing pro bono work at Dentons has “made me realize how broken our criminal justice system is in many ways,” Schanbacher said.
Schanbacher also wants to make it easier for civil litigants to recoup court costs and attorney fees if their adversaries file frivolous claims. She said she wants to end the practice of litigants and companies filing bogus lawsuits in an attempt to make their opponents hemorrhage money.
“We can’t let people clog the system like that. We need to do a better job of, if it’s found by a judge to be a truly frivolous claim—and I think there needs to be a high bar for that—then you should pay for the other side’s legal fees,” Schanbacher said.
Schanbacher acknowledged that, in some cases, litigants can petition the court and win back fees and costs. But she said she wants to make those penalties applicable in all cases for all parties—a plaintiff should be able to punish a defendant if they file a frivolous counterclaim, she added.
However, Schanbacher stressed she did not want to lower the standard for determining whether a lawsuit is considered frivolous.
Schanbacher is a commercial litigator, but she’s most passionate about her pro bono work—a line can be drawn from her past case work to her congressional platform. One case she cited was her prior representation of a nonviolent, low-level drug offender who was initially convicted in the 1980s for selling $10 worth of powdered cocaine in a clemency hearing.
“That continues to hold him back from better employment. Why? I’m not saying that as a rhetorical question. Really, why?” Schanbacher said, recounting the work she did in the case, including writing a 20-plus page brief. “Why did we have to go through all of that? It should have been an automatic process.”
When she was working at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago during her third year of law school, Schanbacher said she made comments about the office apparently prosecuting more black and brown drug offenders than white ones. That led to her getting reassigned to the office’s civil rights division, she said.
“I categorically do not believe in the war on drugs. That has been an epic failure,” Schanbacher said.
Apart from Davis, Schanbacher is also going up against Anthony Clark, a former schoolteacher, and Kina Collins, a gun violence prevention and health care advocate, for the Democratic nominee to Illinois’ 7th congressional district.
Beating Davis won’t be easy. According to the Illinois State Board of Elections, there have only been two electoral contests where Davis didn’t win at least 80% of the votes cast. And on Wednesday, the Chicago Sun-Times, one of the largest newspapers in the city, endorsed Clark in the primary. Schanbacher noted that she has been endorsed by a number of local Democratic politicians and groups.
Schanbacher pointed out that she has raised more money than him from “real humans.” According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Schanbacher has raised $276,975, 71% of which are from large individual contributions, as of press time. About 14% of the contributions to her campaign are from lawyers and lobbyists, CRP said.
By comparison, the majority of the money Davis has raised came from political action committees, CRP said. But with $300,940 sitting in his campaign chest, Davis currently has more cash on hand than Schanbacher, who only has $70,093, something the former Dentons lawyer acknowledged.
Schanbacher is a 2012 graduate of Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. After graduating, Schanbacher had stints at Kutak Rock and Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan before joining Dentons in 2015, rising to the title of senior managing associate.
She resigned from Dentons in November to focus on her campaign, saying it was a tough decision to do so as she enjoyed working on pro bono cases. If she loses the primary, Schanbacher said she plans to rejoin Dentons.
A Dentons spokeswoman confirmed that Schanbacher has resigned from the firm.