Since March 2020, our court system has been undergoing a metamorphosis. Initially, COVID-19 necessitated changes to the way we deliver justice in this state. It brought about increased access to our court system through the use of remote electronic platforms, making it more efficient and user-friendly. More recently, new legislation has been at the heart of the court’s transformation. As a result of the Pretrial Services Act, along with other features of the SAFE-T Act, our court system is taking steps to ensure that equal justice for all is not just an aspiration, but a reality.
You may be wondering how all these changes are being implemented at the ground level. For this reason, I invited Chief Judge David Vancil to be my guest contributor for this month’s edition of the Courts Connect newsletter. Judge Vancil is the Chief Judge of the 9th
Judicial Circuit, which includes Fulton, Hancock, Henderson, Knox, McDonough, and Warren counties. After having served as an Assistant Public Defender in Knox County, an Assistant State's Attorney in Warren County, and then State’s Attorney of Henderson County, Judge Vancil became a member of the bench in the 9th Judicial Circuit Court in 2002 and was named chief judge in 2015. He also serves as Chair of the Conference of Chief Circuit Judges.
I asked Chief Judge Vancil to provide his perspective on the changes that have been occurring in our court system and I thank him for sharing his thoughts and views. I am sure you will enjoy his insightful article.
A Chief Judge’s perspective on what is happening in our judicial system
By Chief Judge David Vancil
So, what is happening in the Illinois Courts from a Chief Judge’s perspective? The answer is change. We are seeing changes in many aspects of the court system, such as upgrades to technology, changes in data collection and pretrial services. Change can be scary, especially to judges. I think judges are inherently resistant to change. We do not like uncertainty and with change, judges cannot be guaranteed an exact outcome. Change may come about by our choice, someone else’s choice, or by circumstances beyond our control. The best way to deal with change is to accept that the change is going to occur and to help shape those changes to best suit our needs. The Chief Judges are fortunate that the Supreme Court and Administrative Offices of the Illinois Courts (AOIC) have given us a seat at the table and are open to our ideas on how to shape the changes happening in the courts.
As I write this article, a good portion of the State of Illinois is being slammed with a winter storm with some parts of the state receiving ice and other parts over a foot of snow. Pre COVID, the only option in a winter storm of this magnitude, would be to shut down and stop all court hearings. The COVID pandemic has caused us to take a look at how we operate the Court system, so that whether it is a pandemic or a weather-related event, the Illinois Courts will continue to provide accessibility to court users. The Supreme Court’s Technology Modernization Program has given Chief Judges and Trial Court Administrators, working with AOIC and their consultant, Guidehouse, the opportunity to take a thorough look at our technology needs and request funding for the needed upgrades. Some of these upgrades to technology in the courts will allow the courts to continue to operate even if a physical location is closed due to a pandemic, snowstorm, or other event beyond our control. Other upgrades will improve the overall efficiency of court operations. These technology upgrades are long overdue, but in many cases, the funding resources at the county level have not been available.
The winter storm also freed up some time for many judges to attend the training session for the weighted caseload study. By the time this article is published, the judges of this state will already be logging their time spent on their judicial activities. The data gathered from the judge’s daily input logs will provide empirical data to be used for decisions about the allocation of judicial resources. The data will provide information on the number of hearings that are held remotely, in person, or a combination of both. This study will also reflect the proportion of case work that is conducted outside the courtroom, an important part of a judge’s workload that is not currently quantified. This data may be used to request additional judges where needed or to assist Chief Judges and Trial Court Administrators in determining the proper allocation of resources within a county or circuit. Many will not realize the potential of this study until long after our initial participation in the time reporting is complete.
Another significant change for the Illinois courts is the Supreme Court’s adoption of a statewide model of delivery of pretrial services. The Supreme Court created the Office of Statewide Pretrial Services with the goal of providing effective, efficient, and consistent pretrial services throughout the state. Those pretrial services will include bond reports, risk assessments and community-based supervision.
While some counties already had pretrial services in place, much of the state was without an existing pretrial program. The adoption of the SAFE-T Act and other pretrial reforms that become effective January 2023, highlighted the need to establish a pretrial program in those counties without an existing program. Many Chief Judges recognize that the Supreme Court’s decision to create a statewide program also eased the financial burden on counties facing unfunded mandates and decreased revenues created by pretrial reforms. The Supreme Court sought and received input from the Conference of Chief Judges as the program was established and we anticipate that input will continue as the program is implemented.
So, while change is upon us, you can be confident that the Supreme Court, AOIC and the Conference of Chief Judges will continue working together to shape that change into a result that provides the highest level of justice possible for every citizen of the Land of Lincoln.