By Marcia M. Meis, Director, Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts
In 2019, Justice Anne Burke’s stated priorities for her 3-year term as Chief Justice were straightforward: continue the successful priorities of her predecessors, support the Illinois Judicial Conference’s recently announced Strategic Agenda, and launch a statewide Listening Tour in coordination with the Illinois State Bar Association.
And then - just as the Listening Tour was set to kick off - the whole world changed. The COVID-19 pandemic upended plans and forced the court system to pivot toward new ways of doing just about everything.
The Illinois Judicial Branch was incredibly fortunate to have Chief Justice Burke leading the court system these past three years. She was responsive, decisive, and unfailingly committed to finding solutions for each and every novel issue faced by our courts. The title “Coach” comes to mind. Going back to her days as a Chicago Park District gym teacher and founder of the Special Olympics, Chief Justice Burke has always been incredibly well-organized and ready to lead. These qualities, combined with her infectious energy and sense of humor, kept us all focused during those bleak and challenging days.
The Listening Tour, along with so much else, was quickly moved to remote participation via Zoom. As it turned out, the ability for multi-disciplinary justice partners to attend actually benefitted the discussion and led to a number of significant developments, such as amendments to Supreme Court Rule 415 (Regulation of Discovery) to help public defenders get information to their jailed clients. The robust discussion further exposed pervasive issues like the technological deficiencies present in many courthouses.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Chief Justice Burke quickly convened a COVID-19 Court Leadership meeting for Supreme Court Justices, Presiding Appellate Court Justices, Chief Circuit Court Judges, Trial Court Administrators, AOIC staff and other Judicial Branch partners to discuss the regular stream of novel issues and how to successfully keep the trains running in our courts while the pandemic raged on. Through this idea-sharing platform, court partners solved many problems around the state simply by talking to one another and replicating successful ideas offered by their colleagues. To date, 42 of these meetings have been held since the first one on March 13, 2020.
Regular discussions with justice partners also prompted another idea for Chief Justice Burke. Before the pandemic, most court users got information by either visiting or calling the courthouse. This became difficult once courts started operating remotely. Chief Justice Burke called for a solution where people could call, text or email to get court information provided by AOIC staff dedicated to this task. In short order, Illinois Court Help was born in May 2021 and has now answered thousands of questions and provided helpful information for hundreds and hundreds of court users.
Chief Justice Burke’s spirit of collaboration continued in the Courts Connect newsletter where she has highlighted the work of others in the Judicial Branch. This has included the Mental Health Task Force, the Supreme Court Clerk’s Office, the AOIC JMIS Division, the AOIC Administrative Services Division and the Conference of Chief Judges.
In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, two other seismic events occurred during Chief Justice Burke’s tenure. The first was the redistricting of the four appellate court districts outside of Cook County. Though discussed by legislators for years, this was the first redrawing of the judicial districts under the 1970 Illinois Constitution. A Task Force was quickly created to study and report on the impact of the new map and provide recommendations for moving forward. The Task Force quickly identified the logistical issues that needed to be addressed and developed a plan for implementation, including a Supreme Court “pause” order – since lifted – to allow time for the courts to take necessary measures in preparation for this significant change.
The second seismic event came when the General Assembly passed the SAFE-T Act to eliminate the use of cash bail in Illinois, along with other changes to the pretrial system. In response, the Supreme Court’s Pretrial Implementation Task Force has been hard at work for nearly a year to make certain our courts are ready when these dramatic changes go into effect on Jan. 1, 2023.
Chief Justice Burke also led the impactful work of the Illinois Mental Health Task Force and encouraged the creation of the Supreme Court Commission on Elder Law. The Commission on Elder Law recently hosted a well-received lecture and panel discussion with the Polish Supreme Court Justice Mariusz Załucki. Under Chief Justice Burke’s leadership, the Court also created the Supreme Court Committee on Judicial Security and Safety that will continue the important work that has made the Illinois Supreme Court a national leader in this area.
We in the Illinois courts are so grateful to Chief Justice Burke for her leadership throughout the pandemic and the foundation she has provided to continue moving the court system forward. It certainly has been an event-filled term like no other before, and we wish her a long and rewarding retirement.
Thankfully, we will continue our good fortune with the upcoming installation of Justice Mary Jane Theis as Chief Justice. We greatly anticipate working with Justice Theis, another visionary leader, on big ideas to successfully move our court system through the 21st Century.