February 28, 2018
The challenges facing the administration of justice in Illinois are not unique. The problems we confront as we attempt to make judicial services more efficient, effective and accessible are shared by many of our sister jurisdictions. The National Center for State Courts (“NCSC”) is an important resource for studying such challenges and formulating strategies for addressing them. The Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts frequently draws on the NCSC’s expertise. The NCSC’s many and varied contributions will be well known to the readers of this publication.
Perhaps less well known is the Conference of Chief Justices (“CCJ”). Founded in 1949 and comprised of the highest judicial officers of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the territories of American Samoa, Guam and the Virgin Islands, the CCJ has emerged as a critical forum for examining ways to improve the administration of justice, court rules and procedures, and the organization and operation of state courts. In the past several decades, it has also helped provide a more unified – and more powerful – voice in conveying the concerns of state courts to the various branches of the federal government.
As the chief judicial officer in Illinois, I recently had the opportunity to represent our state at the CCJ’s midyear meeting in Henderson, Nevada. During that meeting, the Conference’s various committees considered and approved resolutions regarding many of the areas of concern addressed in this publication over the past year. Among the Conference committees’ actions were adoption of principles developed by the National Task Force on Fines, Fees and Bail Practices to help ensure that no person is denied their liberty or access to the justice system based on race, culture or lack of economic resources and to guide development of policies related to the handling of legal financial obligations that will promote access, fairness and transparency. We were updated on the status of funding for the Legal Services Corporation and reaffirmed the importance of LSC in addressing the unmet legal needs of low-income Americans. Tracking Illinois’ Access to Justice initiatives, the Conference recognized the importance of expanded self-help services to litigants, new or modified court rules and processes that facilitate access, discrete task representation by counsel, increased pro bono assistance, effective use of technology, and enhanced language access services. Conference members were also briefed on changes in the policy of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) regarding civil immigration enforcement actions inside federal, state and local courthouses. That new policy, by the way, does not regard courthouses as “sensitive locations,” as had been hoped, a designation that would have placed them in the same protected category as schools, health care facilities and churches. Rather, it calls for ICE officers to “generally avoid enforcement actions in courthouses, or areas within courthouses that are dedicated to non-criminal (e.g., family court, small claims) proceedings” and to refrain from taking civil immigration enforcement action against family members or friends accompanying a target alien to court appearances or serving as a witness in a proceeding, absent special circumstances. We shall see what that means in practice.
In addition to committee reports and resolutions, the midyear meeting also featured numerous educational programs. This year the focus was on the impact of substance abuse on state courts. The opioid crisis and the challenges of treating opioid addiction were mentioned of course, but the speakers also addressed topics from “the impact on state courts of decriminalizing marijuana” to how alcoholism, chemical dependencies, stress, depression and other emotional health issues affect judges, lawyers and law students. It was an intensive learning experience for Conference members and a worthwhile one.
As the five-day conference drew to a close, I left on a note of encouragement. It came in the most recent poll on “The State of State Courts” conducted by the NCSC and distributed to all Conference members. While the poll disclosed that voters remain wary of the effect of politics on the impartiality of our courts and that judges are often perceived as out of touch with community concerns, it also showed that a majority of people would say that the terms “fair and impartial,” “provide equal justice to all,” and “represent a good investment of tax dollars” describe the courts “well” or “very well.” Moreover, a full 71% of respondents expressed confidence in their state court systems, 10 points more than they had in governors and 14 points more than they had in their legislatures. At a time when skepticism in government at large seems to be deepening by the day, the continued faith in state courts is something that everyone in the judicial branch should take pride in – and strive to preserve.