November 27, 2018
The past year has been a tumultuous one. Condemnation of governmental institutions, particularly at the federal level, has reached levels not seen in generations. While most attention has focused on the President, no branch of government has been exempt. Congress is viewed by many as a hyper-partisan battlefield where power subverts reason and civility is on permanent leave. Controversy related to the United States Supreme Court and the selection of its most recent member has put that institution under a cloud that may not soon clear, notwithstanding assurances by that court’s chief justice that it will serve “one nation” and not “one party or one interest.”
The erosion of confidence in federal institutions is bad news for all of us in government. Once started, corrosive ideas are infectious and difficult to contain. When things turn ugly in Washington, there will inevitably be repercussions for office holders at the state and local levels. Anyone who suffered through the onslaught of ads for candidates in this month’s general election – and who could avoid them? – has been witness to that unhappy principle of political physics. Toxicity flows downhill.
But there is cause for hope too. In contrast to the rancor and divisiveness that have come to dominate our civic life, the Illinois judicial branch has experienced a year of extraordinary cooperation in which talented individuals from throughout the state have pitched in to help develop strategies to improve the quality of justice for all Illinoisans. Access to Justice has adopted meaningful and innovative strategies for assisting self-represented litigants, including a collaboration with the Illinois Bar Foundation, the Chicago Bar Foundation and AmeriCorps, to provide Illinois Justice Corps Fellows to facilitate access to legal and social service resources by individuals who cannot afford to pay a lawyer. Members of our new Judicial College are working hard to insure that all members of the judicial branch at all levels, not just judges, will receive the best possible training. In cooperation with the legislature and the executive branch, the court is overhauling the way we impose fines and fees in order to make them easier to calculate and less onerous. Our old system of cash bail is being re-evaluated and reformed. We have begun to make a concerted effort to assist judges throughout the state avoid race, gender, socio-economic and other forms of bias in their decision making. Mental health, drug, and other specialty courts continue to grow in popularity as their usefulness in rehabilitating lives becomes apparent. In sum, we are moving forward together on nearly every front.
I am also heartened by the fact that during this election cycle, judicial races avoided much of the negativity that has characterized recent campaigns. Statewide, there seems to have been increased emphasis on the importance of selecting judges based on their character and qualifications. In my area, judges seeking retention reached across party lines and worked together to build support for themselves and their colleagues. Public education and civic engagement replaced disparagement and disinformation. No one was ambushed. Overall, the system appears to have worked as it should.
The spirit of cooperation that characterized so much of the judicial branch’s work this past year has also guided the Supreme Court itself. Since I first joined the court in December of 2004, the members of the court have been extraordinarily gracious and civil toward one another. Debates regarding the disposition of cases can be heated – there’s no doubt about that – but the disagreements are never personal and always end in the conference room. I have never known any of my colleagues to harbor a grudge based on a difference of opinion over how a case should be resolved.
This year we mark the court’s and the state’s 200th anniversary. A gala hosted by the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum last month honored this important milestone. The event provided a meaningful opportunity for reflection on the critical role the courts have played in the history of Illinois. More importantly, however, it served to underscore that in this time of discord, the courts are still able to effectively carry out their Constitutional responsibilities with honor and dignity on behalf of the people they serve. That is something in which everyone associated with the judicial branch should take pride.