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Chief’s Column: Looking back on a busy, successful 2023


By Chief Justice Mary Jane Theis

As 2023 closes, I would like to reflect upon my first year as Chief Justice and to highlight some of the important initiatives launched this year by the Court and its Administrative Office.

In January, when the Court began its first term together with four relatively new members, none of the members knew what to expect. We have come a long way since then. Our discussions have grown more robust but have remained collegial. I am grateful to call my six colleagues friends. They all are exemplary jurists—thoughtful and deliberative, and committed to principled decision-making.

Also in January, the new Code of Judicial Conduct became effective. Article 6, Section 13(a) of the Illinois Constitution instructs that “[t]he Supreme Court shall adopt rules of conduct for Judges and Associate Judges.” It has always been understood that those rules apply to Supreme Court Justices as well as every other judicial officer in the state.

Since 1992, the Illinois Judicial Ethics Committee (IJEC), a joint body comprised of representatives from the Illinois Judges Association, the Chicago Bar Association, and the Illinois State Bar Association, has advised the judiciary about ethical matters and reviewing proposals to improve the rules governing judges. There are several important changes to the new code. Although the language has been modified, Canon 1.2 of the Code of Judicial Conduct continues to promote the public’s confidence in the fairness of an independent third branch.

“A judge shall act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary and shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.”

Those qualities are indispensable in every case and were particularly evident in Rowe v. Raoul, where the Court recently addressed the constitutionality of Public Acts 101-652 and 102-1104, collectively and commonly known as the Safe-T Act. That legislation dramatically changed the statutory framework for pretrial release of criminal defendants, and its central provision was the abolishment of cash bail in Illinois. On an expedited basis, the parties filed briefs, and the Court held oral arguments in March. The ultimate opinion, issued on July 18, upheld the statute, and gave the bench and bar 60 days to prepare for the changes. In response, the Conference of Chief Judges approved forms and orders, and the Appellate Court Administrative Committee proposed new Supreme Court Rules, which have been adopted.

Additionally, the Court created the Office of Statewide Pretrial Services (OSPS). OSPS provides support in 71 counties covering 3,000 square miles, and 2.7 million residents. Statistics from that office published by the Court indicate there have been more than 1,400 pretrial detention petitions filed by the State - 67% of those were granted, resulting in approximately 1,200 appeals across five districts. The Court recently approved a rule amendment that fast-tracks our consideration of petitions for leave to appeal in those cases. The judiciary’s response, at all levels, to this massive change in criminal procedure has been impressive.

Last September, the Court hosted the inaugural Supreme Court Committee and Commission Leadership Summit. We asked the leaders of those bodies to use their imaginations to envision how they could communicate more effectively between and among each other in areas where their charges may overlap. The goal was to create an environment of synergy and collaboration, like that of the Illinois Judicial Conference Task Forces. After discussing different approaches from different angles, summit participants were energized.

One initiative of the summit was the launch of a new Executive Committee on the Practice of Law. Its members include representatives from the Illinois Board of Bar Admissions, the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, the Mandatory Continuing Legal Education Board, the Professionalism Commission, the Professional Responsibility Committee, and the Lawyers Trust Fund, as well as seven members appointed by the Supreme Court. The Executive Committee’s charge is to provide “recommendations to the Supreme Court regarding issues impacting the practice of law and unmet legal needs throughout the State of Illinois.”

In Illinois, those needs are real. Our state has too many “legal deserts.” That may not seem like a problem in Cook County, which has more lawyers than the entire nation of Japan. In 35 other counties, there are 10 or fewer private practitioners, and in 13 counties, there are five or fewer. Some counties only have a resident circuit court judge, a State’s Attorney, and a part time public defender. Litigants are left representing themselves in a variety of legal disputes ranging from contract and tort cases to dissolution and family law cases. Our hope is that the new Executive Committee can spearhead solutions to these challenges.

Similar challenges occur in criminal court, too. Now 60 years after the United States Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, the sacrosanct right to counsel is often unrealized in certain areas of the State. The Illinois Judicial Conference Indigent Criminal Defense Task Force has issued a report with recommendations in that regard. The Task Force supports fully funding trial-level public defense services across Illinois, establishing an independent statewide Administrative Office of Public Defense to implement new services and administer funding for them, rigorously recruiting public defenders. The aim of these proposals is to assure that the right to counsel is consistent and robust throughout our state.

The Court’s Access to Justice Commission continued its strong efforts promoting, facilitating, and enhancing equal access to justice for all people, including the poor and vulnerable, this year. The Commission’s innovative Illinois Court Help program was widely utilized, providing court users with free information and assistance via phone, text message, or email. And the Commission’s Disability Access Committee focused its attention on empowering local Court Disability coordinators and standardizing processes to obtain accommodations in court facilities across the State.

Finally, the Court began a longer-term project to reform the jury system in Illinois. Jury issues recently have received national attention after Washington, California, and Arizona drastically changed their rules on voir dire to ensure the promises of Batson v. Kentucky are realized. The question that remains is whether such initiatives ultimately achieve the goal of translating more representative juries into more fair and just verdicts. The Illinois Judicial Conference has created a Juror Experience Task Force to examine the jury system here and to make recommendations. And just a few weeks ago, the IJC approved the Strategic Agenda 2024 Operational Plan, which includes plans to improve jury service across the state.

This has been a busy year, and next year will be, as well. On behalf of my colleagues on the Illinois Supreme Court, best wishes for 2024.