As the race for the Illinois Supreme Court heats up with weeks to go, there are questions raised about contributions incumbent Justice Michael Burke previously received and the subsequent nominations he made.
Campaign contribution records reviewed by NBC 5 Investigates show Burke’s campaign, the “Citizens to Elect Justice Michael J Burke” committee, received more than $11,000 from the husband of a DuPage Circuit Court judge that Burke had nominated and later appointed for the position.
The contributions were made months prior to Judge Kavita Athanikar’s appointment to the DuPage Circuit Court bench.
Burke’s campaign spokesperson Jon Nelson told NBC 5 in part that, “Any insinuation that the political activity of [Athanikar’s] husband played a role in her appointment is absurd.”
Through a firm that specializes in crisis public relations, Kavita Athanikar told NBC 5, “These are baseless allegations in the throes of a heated campaign.”
Allegations that the donations may have had an influence on Burke’s choice to nominate Athanikar for the Circuit Court bench were raised by “Protect Our Court,” a social welfare organization.
Protect Our Court states on its website that it “does not raise or spend money in support of political candidates,” but advocates for “protecting the Illinois Supreme Court” from being “controlled by far-right conservatives.”
The donations to Burke’s campaign were made by Judge Athanikar’s husband, Manas Athanikar, and the company he currently works for as executive vice president, Batavia Container Inc out of Batavia, Ill.
Nearly one year ago, on Oct. 23, 2021, campaign contribution records show Manas Athanikar paid $5,996 to Burke’s campaign for “promotional gifts (vest, t-shirts), food, beverages,” and a “golf donation.”
That same day, as well as three days later, Batavia Container Inc. and some of its employees also contributed a total of $5,500 to Burke’s campaign. The contribution records show those donations were for “event signage and beverages” at the White Eagle Golf Club and Glenn Oak Country Club.
More than two months after the donations, on Jan. 5, the DuPage Circuit Court announced Manas’ wife, Kavita Athanikar, was appointed to fill a DuPage Circuit Court judicial position that would be vacated in March after the retirement of the Honorable Robert Kleeman, according to a DuPage Circuit Court news release.
Prior to the appointment, Athanikar had been an associate judge for the DuPage Circuit Court since 2018.
It was Justice Burke who had nominated Athanikar for the job, and she was appointed after a unanimous vote by the state’s Supreme Court which Burke sits on.
Athanikar was also later appointed to a Supreme Court Advisory Committee for Justice and Mental Health that Burke serves on as Supreme Court Liaison, according to a DuPage Circuit Court news release from this past May.
Records reviewed by NBC 5 show some of the contributions made by Manas Athanikar to Burke’s campaign specifically listed a home address that Manas and Judge Kavita Athanikar share in Naperville.
Campaign contribution data shows Manas Athanikar made donations to two other state campaigns in the last two years.
Manas Athanikar contributed $1,000 in 2021 to the campaign for DuPage Circuit Court Judge Mike Reidy, and another $250 donation this year to the campaign for Stefanie Hood, who’s running for the Illinois District 42’s House Representative seat.
The records show Batavia Container Inc., Manas’ company, only contributed to Justice Burke’s campaign.
While Athanikar initially planned to run for an additional term on the DuPage Circuit Court bench, in recent months, she abruptly announced her retirement.
Athanikar announced in August she was stepping down from her judicial position and withdrawing from her race to pursue medical treatment, citing a health issue.
After nearly a week of requesting comment from Kavita Athanikar, a public relations firm representing her and her husband told NBC 5 the allegations raised are nonsensical.
“Emphatically, I never asked to be appointed to the Circuit Court,” Kavita Athanikar’s statement reads. “I was honored when I was asked by Justice Bob Thomas and Justice Mike Burke to serve in that role. Hosting meet and greet events for candidates is a bedrock of our democratic process.”
The Athanikars’ PR firm also pointed out that the meet-and-greet event for Justice Burke’s campaign took place before DuPage Circuit Court Judge Robert Kleeman’s retirement was announced publicly on Dec. 21, according to an official notice from the courts, and that there was no way for anyone to know at the time of the Burke campaign event about the upcoming judgeship vacancy she was later appointed for.
This is all playing out as the race for the Illinois Supreme Court heats up, in particular for Supreme Court Justice incumbent Michael Burke.
Burke was first appointed to the Supreme Court to replace Justice Robert Thomas in March of 2020, and is running in the general election for an additional term.
Burke’s campaign told NBC 5 that Kavita Athanikar was selected and appointed based on her merits, nothing more.
“When she served as a Circuit Judge, Athanikar was the only person of color and one of six women on the bench as a circuit judge,” the campaign said. “It’s important for branches of government, including our courts, to reflect the makeup of the communities they serve. That is partly why she was considered for an appointment by former Justice Bob Thomas, Justice Burke, and the Illinois Supreme Court as a whole.”
Campaign spokesperson Nelson said, “Prior to her unanimous, bipartisan appointment by the Illinois Supreme Court, Judge Athanikar was considered for an appointment by former Supreme Court Justice Bob Thomas. Before that, she was appointed associate judge by the circuit judges of the 18th Judicial Circuit in 2018.”
The campaign also shared that on Sept. 2, the DuPage County Bar Association’s Judiciary Committee rated Athanikar as “highly recommended” ahead of the 2022 General Election.
Athanikar’s rating is no longer listed on the DCBA’s website, and the DCBA did not respond to NBC 5’s requests to verify whether it issued this rating for Athanikar.