October 27, 2020
After nearly eight months of grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, we are all well-aware of the serious consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has disrupted our lives and taken a toll on our wellbeing –physically, emotionally, and financially. Some have experienced the loss of a family member or friend. Others have lost their jobs and their livelihood. Viewed from this perspective, it might seem that the only impact that the coronavirus has had on our lives has been negative. It has been said, however, that, at least for the judicial system, the coronavirus has been “the challenge we did not want, but the challenge we needed.”
Because of the pandemic, in the span of seven months, the courts have accomplished more innovation in providing access to justice than was accomplished over the last decade. There is also a robust atmosphere of cooperation and collaboration among the courts and stakeholders.
It has been gratifying to see this response to the unprecedented challenges that were thrust upon us by the pandemic. I thank everyone who works within the court system each day– judges, staff, administrators, and stakeholders –for answering the call to action. It is because of your dedication that the courts have remained open, while maintaining the safety of both court personnel and the public.
Now, I would like to introduce Justice Donald C. Hudson, who has been serving on the Illinois Second District Appellate Court since 2009. He currently chairs the Appellate Court Administrative Committee, one of the Illinois Supreme Court’s standing committees. This Committee is tasked with studying and making recommendations on methods which the appellate court might use to improve the processing of appeals. I invited Justice Hudson to contribute to this newsletter and he graciously agreed to provide us with an update on a very important initiative – the Volunteer Pro Bono Program for Criminal Appeals. I think you will find his remarks very informative.
Forming New Collaborations Within the Supreme Court’s Volunteer Pro Bono Program for Criminal Appeals
By Justice Donald C. Hudson
In February 2020, the Illinois Supreme Court launched the Volunteer Pro Bono Program for Criminal Appeals to assist in reducing the backlog of criminal appeals that are currently pending with the Office of the State Appellate Defender (OSAD). The pro bono program began as a six-month pilot program in the First and Second Districts of the Illinois Appellate Court. The Supreme Court recently decided to continue and implement the program throughout all five Judicial Districts.
The Appellate Court Administrative Committee assisted in the development of the program, which was overseen by my colleague, First District Appellate Court Justice Bertina Lampkin. Illinois Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis also provided a great deal of support and guidance as the Court’s liaison to the committee. The intent in developing this initiative was to expeditiously resolve the backlog of criminal cases on appeal and provide defendants with a just and prompt determination of their case. In addition, at its core, the project is fundamentally about increasing access to justice, fostering transparency, and improving the operation of our court system.
Overall, the program has exceeded its initial goals for the pilot period. Since the program’s inception, 74 attorneys have volunteered to participate and we continue to work on various methods of outreach to secure additional volunteer attorneys for the initiative. For example, OSAD has instituted a virtual training seminar for the program that will be held on a quarterly basis and will serve to certify more attorneys for the program.
A lasting impact that occurred during the pilot phase that I wish to highlight is the level of collaboration that has been achieved across the independent silos under which our court system operates. The Supreme Court, under the leadership of Chief Justice Anne M. Burke, convened numerous virtual meetings with stakeholders to examine why the backlog of appeals existed and what could be done to address the systemic issues causing those delays. Participating in those meetings were representatives from the Illinois Supreme Court, Illinois Appellate Court, Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Office of Official Court Reporters, State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor, Cook County State's Attorney's Office, DuPage County State's Attorney's Office, Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, and OSAD.
In particular, the working group focused on delays concerning the preparation and delivery of the Record on Appeal. The clerks, court reporters, and OSAD each examined their internal processes and procedures, identified areas of improvement, and proposed plans for improving and streamlining aspects of their operations. Solutions were then implemented that increased channels of communication, as well as the frequency and method of information sharing.
Additional meetings were also held with the state’s attorneys and OSAD to discuss briefing schedules and delays caused by multiple motions for extension of time. The group examined staffing, caseload assignment, and ways to effectively allocate resources to focus on the backlog. Illinois Supreme Court Rule 610 was also amended to provide consistency across the state regarding motions for extension of time in order to achieve more expeditious preparation and disposition of criminal appeals.
By bringing all the involved agencies to the table, we were able to institute collaborative solutions across offices and these stakeholders played a vital role in moving the pro bono program forward. The result is not only a more efficient court system, but outcomes that positively impact individuals awaiting their appeal to be decided.
It was also extremely gratifying to have the opportunity to work with so many dedicated individuals all committed to the common goal of improving the operation of our court system. In this regard, I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the administrative efforts of Kathryn Hensley, Senior Program Manager for the AOIC, and thank her for her assistance in the preparation of this article. On behalf of the Appellate Court Administrative Committee, I also want to express our appreciation to the members of the Supreme Court for this important and progressive initiative which has served to enhance the quality of justice in our state.