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Chief's Column: Judicial independence remains a pillar of democracy


By Chief Justice Mary Jane Theis, Illinois Supreme Court

Judicial independence has been a cornerstone of our Republic since its founding. In Federalist #78, Alexander Hamilton explained the role of the federal judiciary under the United States Constitution. According to Hamilton, the judiciary has “neither force, nor will, but merely judgment.” Consequently, “[t]he complete independence of the courts of justice is peculiarly essential” in safeguarding the trust and confidence that people have in the judiciary and the decisions that judges make on a daily basis.

My colleague Justice David Overstreet recently finished his year-long term as President of the Illinois Judges Association (IJA). Throughout his tenure, the IJA sought to reiterate the importance of an independent judiciary. Here to explain more is Justice Overstreet.

By Justice David K. Overstreet, 5th District

As I envisioned a theme in the months preceding the beginning of my year as President of the Illinois Judges Association, it was clear to me that in the world and environment we live in it would be most appropriate to focus on the importance of judicial independence in our country and state, and for that matter the world. I am concerned when our elected officials at even the highest levels of our government and others call into question the legitimacy of our courts and democratic institutions when decisions are rendered which do not adhere to their view of how things should be decided politically. The attacks on judges for political purposes from all sides of the political spectrum at one time or another is a disturbing trend, in my opinion, on the state, national, and international levels. Thus, the theme “Judicial Independence; the Bulwark of our Democracy. Celebrate our Past, Defend it Today” was born. This was the theme that I asked all the IJA committees to incorporate into their activities and initiatives where possible, and I must say IJA members responded to that call successfully and with great enthusiasm. I appreciate all of those many efforts over the course of my year as IJA President from June 2023 through the end of May 2024.

The IJA Media Committee continued to create and distribute excellent videos for the use of the public and circuit courts to explain such topics as the commonly referred to “Pre-trial Fairness Act” and the role of judges concerning the Act and related scenarios. The videos were informative and entertaining too (you could tell our judges who had starring roles as either judges or members of the public enjoyed the filming process) and those videos certainly promoted good will with the public we serve and a fair and independent judiciary.

In December the IJA Educational Programming Committee sponsored interesting CLE programs at the ISBA/IJA mid-year meeting in Chicago. Of special note, a panel discussion concerning the selection of judges in Illinois and how that affects judicial independence and the confidence in the public in our judiciary was challenging and thought provoking. The panel was moderated by attorney Steve Pflaum and comprised of Retired Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier and retired Appellate Court Justices Carol Pope and Mat Delort.

The IJA Educational Programing Committee continued their outstanding work in the Spring of 2024 by hosting a webinar presentation by retired California Judge LaDoris H. Cordell on “Defending our Judiciary in an Era of Discontent.” Judge Cordell is an accomplished and well-spoken presenter, and she was a welcome addition to the conversation we had this year on the history and present battles of judicial independence focusing particularly on recall elections in other states and the election of judges, including in Illinois.

Appellate Court Justice David Ellis gave a stirring address on Judicial Independence at the IJA luncheon at the mid-year meeting. His recount of the days of the Governor Blagojevich impeachment trial in which he served as House prosecutor, as well as other more recent events in which our democracy has been tested, left all of us in the room sobered by the challenges we face in our nation to promote judicial independence and the survival of our democracy.

The IJA Travel Committee under the leadership of co-chairs Judge Mike Chmiel and retired Judge Ron Spears, with the wonderful planning by attorney Justyna Regan, took the education of judges and their guests on an international stage with our trip to Poland in April. Over 40 of us were able to share these experiences together which, besides the cultural and historical sites we visited (the last day we experienced the indescribable horror of a visit to the Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps), included judicial and governmental visits which highlighted how precious democracy is and our role in defending it in the judiciary. The Polish people have been fighting for their freedom and independence for centuries. All of us were most impressed with Poland’s struggle for democratic principles to prevail against the forces of authoritarianism. We were hosted by and met with the Polish Supreme Court, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal (their court of judicial review) the US Ambassador to Poland, Mark Brzezinski (at the Ambassador’s home in Warsaw), the trial courts in Rzeszów, and the University of Rzeszów where we participated in a conference focusing on the Ukrainian refugee challenges and members of our group answered general questions about the American legal system and the United States from students in the audience. We also had a moving meeting with the Mayor of Rzeszów, who recounted the great efforts his city has made in taking in thousands of Ukrainian refugees. All of these incredible visits were arranged by Polish law professor Beata Zaluski along with her husband Poland Supreme Court Justice Mariusz Zaluski. Our group enjoyed being with each other so much that we have already had a reunion this summer hosted by Judge Lindsay Parkhurst and her husband Marc at their beautiful home in Kankakee.

The culminating event of the IJA year and the theme of Judicial Independence was the May 9th event in Springfield. The IJA Retired Judges did an excellent job in sponsoring a CLE program at the Illinois State Library in the morning with a presentation by attorney Terry Hake who posed undercover in Operation Greylord, which resulted in over one hundred convictions for fixing cases in Cook County including 17 judges. The presentation was riveting and quite frankly should be required viewing for members of the judiciary as a lesson on what can go wrong when judges do not take their oaths to provide fair and impartial justice with the gravity that such an oath requires.

The event moved across the street to the Illinois Supreme Court building for an afternoon presentation by John Lupton, Executive Director of the Illinois State Supreme Court Preservation Commission, on the history of judicial independence in the state courts of Illinois with a focus on cases dealing with the separation of powers between the three co-equal branches of government. The celebration continued with tours of the Illinois Supreme Court Building, including the justices’ living quarters, led by John Lupton, and Sam Wheeler, the Director of History Programs of the Commission. A barbeque reception followed thanks to the generosity of the Illinois State Bar Association and the use of their parking lot and tent covering. Kudos to retired Judge John Coady and all of the Springfield event committee for their work in making this a special day and a fitting finale to the IJA year promoting Judicial Independence.