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Thinking Back with Appreciation – Looking Ahead with Confidence

9/23/2019

September 23, 2019

Every three years, the Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court must pass the gavel to his or her successor. It is that time again. On October 26th, it will be my pleasure to yield the center chair on the Supreme Court bench to our next Chief Justice, Anne M. Burke.  

As this triennial transition approaches, I cannot help but think back to when I took over as Chief from Justice Garman in 2016. Shortly after assuming office, I had the privilege of speaking to the ISBA in Chicago regarding what I hoped to achieve. My objectives were straightforward. First, I emphasized that our primary responsibility was to promptly and fairly decide the cases before us. Providing checks and balances on the other branches of government through our rulings and interpreting the law to provide guidance to the courts and people of this State are, after all, what define the Court’s place in the Constitutional order. Second, I committed to ensuring that the numerous initiatives undertaken by the Court in recent years would continue to move forward.

Critical to long-term success in meeting these objectives was finding a way to overcome the serious funding challenges that had long plagued the judicial branch. As I reported in this column last month, we were finally able to accomplish that this spring. After five straight years of flat budgets and rising expenses, the General Assembly has increased our appropriation from the General Revenue Fund to $405,321,200, a figure that is more than $60.5 million higher than in each of the preceding five years. It is a sum that will not only adequately fund all judicial positions authorized by law and cover projected administrative and other state-paid expenses at all levels of the court system, but will also enable us to finally meet statutory requirements for reimbursement of local county probation departments.

In working to persuade the legislature of the value of investment in the judiciary, we were able to point to a series of accomplishments related to the fair, efficient and effective administration of justice. Our much-anticipated and badly needed e-filing initiative continued to expand. With the addition of DuPage County over the summer, the eFileIL system for civil cases now includes every county in every circuit in Illinois as well as the Supreme and Appellate Courts. Our Access to Justice Commission and the Access to Justice Division of the Administrative Office have developed easy-to-use standardized forms to assist pro se litigants navigate the civil court system and have improved language access services to help insure that litigants with limited English proficiency will receive the language assistance they need – the online Court Interpreter Registry now has 372 certified interpreters conversant in 33 languages. Working with Access to Justice, our Administrative Office has also established a network of coordinators for self-represented litigants in the circuit courts and launched a pilot project to help self-represented litigants in the appellate court.

On the criminal law side of things, we have continued to pursue our statewide initiative to overhaul pretrial services and detention practices, formally adopting a Policy Statement on Pretrial Services aimed at reducing pretrial incarceration rates through use of evidence-based risk assessment tools combined with manageable and reasonable post-release conditions – all with the goal of conserving taxpayer resources and minimizing long-term adverse economic effects on defendants and their families. In connection with that effort, we also established a Commission on Pretrial Practices that has been hosting public hearings throughout the state and is expected to issue its final report and recommendations this December regarding what needs to be done to ensure that pretrial practices in all jurisdictions in Illinois are consistent, in form and substance, with our Pretrial Policy Statement.

In a similar vein, our Court has continued to assist circuit courts in implementing drug and other specialty courts to help divert people from the normal criminal justice system and restore them to society before they fall into the trap of recidivism. We have also joined the Regional Opioid Initiative to engage with courts, law enforcement and social service agencies from other midwestern states in a coordinated effort to combat the ongoing scourge of opioid abuse.

Mindful that we can no longer be merely reactive to the challenges facing the administration of justice, the court has formally reconstituted the Illinois Judicial Conference into a proactive strategic planning and policy body for the judicial branch of the State of Illinois. That change, which is fundamental and historic, took effect a year ago. Work has been ongoing ever since. The first Strategic Agenda was submitted to the Court for approval this month. It is expected to be announced on October 2.

During my tenure as Chief, we also moved ahead with improved legal education programs for lawyers, amending our continuing legal education rules to require training on diversity and inclusion as well as training related to mental health and substance abuse. We also substantially overhauled the requirements for what it takes to become a lawyer to begin with. In 2018, we eliminated the traditional Illinois bar exam and joined the growing number of states (we are #30) that have adopted Uniform Bar Exam (the UBE). The UBE was administered by Illinois for the first time this past July.

Judicial education took a major step into the future as well with inauguration of the new Illinois Judicial College. First established in 2016, the college now serves as the primary vehicle for the planning, development and execution for all training and educational programs conducted by the Court. One new and exceptional feature of the college is that it oversees training and education for everyone in the judicial branch, not merely judicial officers. In addition to judicial education, there are committees for probation, circuit clerks, trial court administrators, guardians ad litem, and judicial branch staff.

Another hallmark of my tenure as Chief has been the Court’s effort to improve awareness of its work, not only within the judicial branch, but throughout government and with the public at large. This monthly publication, Illinois Courts Connect, and our daily Media Monitor news service are two of the more obvious examples. Less well known, but also important, have been our “Law School for Legislators” programs designed to help new members of the General Assembly and other officials better understand how the court system works and how the three branches of government interact under our Constitutional order. A successful “Law School for Legislators” program was hosted by the Court in May of 2017. Another was held earlier this year. More will follow. The Court has also accelerated its practice of “riding circuit.” In March of 2018 we held oral arguments at the University of Illinois, my alma mater. Just last week the court convened at the Godrey campus of Lewis & Clark Community College. Both provided excellent opportunities for students, educators and members of the general public to see firsthand how the Court handles the cases that come before it.

I wish I could take personal credit for these initiatives, but I cannot. They were the result of tireless efforts by all of the members of the Court, the Administrative Office, judicial branch staff, and a legion of volunteer committee members working together to improve our system of justice. While it has been a true team effort, I would like to give special recognition to our Administrative Director, Marcia Meis. Director Meis stepped in to take the helm shortly after I became Chief when unfortunate health issues required her predecessor, the outstanding Mike Tardy, to retire before he would have liked. Had Marcia known just how many important initiatives were about to hit critical mass, she may have had second thoughts about stepping into Mike’s shoes. Fortunately for me and the Court, she has taken on every challenge without hesitation and done a brilliant job.

A final comment. By sheer happenstance, it was my great privilege to have presided over the Supreme Court as it marked its 200th anniversary. The occasion was especially significant to me because the very first session of court over which a member of the Illinois Supreme Court presided took place in a little town called Covington, where I grew up, in a courthouse located on property that my father later farmed. Because of my ties to Covington, I have always felt a special connection to the Court and an appreciation for the important role it has played in the history of our State. It has been a privilege for me to have been among the unbroken line of jurists extending from that long-ago court session in Covington to the present. As I now prepare to pass the office of Chief Justice on to my colleague Justice Burke, I do so with profound respect for the history we follow and a heartfelt confidence in the Court’s ability to continue moving forward, in the cause of justice, on behalf of the people we have been elected to serve.