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May 29, 2017: "What it means to be a Circuit Judge in Illinois."
Today I want to talk about the specific position I am running for next year, which is Circuit Judge here in the 6th Judicial Circuit of Illinois. In doing so, I will be writing about the Illinois court system from the perspective of a practicing lawyer with a history degree and probably a little too much interest in the details. Its important stuff, though, because these people in black robes are both the gate keepers for law and order and also the principal arbiters of individual civil liberties. Just the same, the way that circuit judges get the jobs they hold matters; citizens who know how that process works will be better informed in the voting booth.
I know I get long-winded, and my posts can serve as excellent cures for insomnia, so let me start with an executive summary: Circuit judges are elected by the people, sometimes from only one county, sometimes from all of them (in our case, 6 counties). I am running to fill a vacancy brought about by the retirement of Harry Clem last year. There will be a primary election in March 2018, and the general election will be in November 2018.
There, that wasn't so bad, right? Now, impress your friends and colleagues by learning the history of the Illinois Circuit Court system (or, alternatively, just sit back and enjoy the following natural sedative) by reading the rest of the story. . .
The Illinois court system has been a work in progress over the last 200 years. In fact, when Illinois became a State in 1818, the court system as we know it now did not even exist. By starting with French trappers as its first European settlers, and then being conquered by John Rogers Clark for the Republic of Virginia in 1778, our new State was a mishmash of French Civil and British Common Law traditions upon admission to the Union. While the British system (implemented by Americans) eventually won the day, these two competing methods of conflict resolution were far from being resolved when Illinois became a State. That meant that our leaders tweaked the judicial system (and everything else in government) many, many times.
Under our first Constitution in 1818, no judges were elected, but were instead *selected* entirely by the legislature. There were also very few of them. At the time Illinois was admitted as a State and continuing until 1824, the entire official judiciary consisted of 4 judges who together formed the Justices of the Illinois Supreme Court.
These Justices had more responsibility than simply hearing appeals. Each had a geographical area within the State for which they were individually responsible. Each Justice would travel to his designated part of the State and then go county-to-county several times a year to hear criminal cases, resolve civil disputes, and generally make sure that people did not take the law into their own hands.
The Justices did this because the 1818 Constitution directed them to "hold circuit courts in the several counties, in such manner and at such times...as the general assembly shall by law prescribe." The phrase "hold circuit courts" derived from the general British/Colonial/Early American custom at that time that judges traveled from place to place to dispense justice and returned to do so several times a year. These travel patterns usually took the form of a circle or an ellipse. Hence, the term "Riding the Circuit" was applied, and this concept of a "Circuit Judge" being responsible for a multiple county area within the State of Illinois has followed on to the present day.
These Justices did have some help. The 1818 Constitution also provided for the appointment of "justices of the peace," who would handle relatively minor criminal offences and property disputes, to witness important events like property transactions and, obviously, to officiate weddings. But the important matters were reserved for the judges who rode the circuit.
In the years that followed, the General Assembly relieved the Supreme Court of its circuit riding duties, initially appointing 5 circuit judges in 1824 to ride circuit for a population that was located mainly south of a line from St. Louis, Missouri to Vincennes, Indiana. However the legislature changed its mind several times over the next 25 years, repeatedly abolishing the post of circuit court judge & making the supreme court justices to do the job instead, only to change their minds a few years later.
In addition to dealing with a legislature suffering from a personality disorder, the judiciary had to contend with a population which continued to grow and spread out. While the State initially was dominated by its southern pioneers, that population rapidly moved north, morphing from 15 counties in 1818 to its final 102 counties by 1859.
To address these issues and others, the Illinois Constitution was rewritten in 1848. This new document represented a radical change for the judiciary, in that it took the power of selecting judges away from the legislature and put it in the hands of voters. It also established 9 circuits in Illinois, a minimum of one elected circuit judge in each circuit and the provision that each circuit judge "shall hold his office for the term of six years, and until his successor shall be commissioned and qualified."
The 1848 Constitution also provided more "help" for the circuit judges in the form of "county judges," one for each county, whose responsibilities "shall extend to all probate and such other jurisdiction as the general assembly may confer in civil cases, and such criminal cases as may be prescribed by law, where the punishment is by fine only, not exceeding $100." The legislature created other judges below the "rank" of circuit judge, a process that was tweaked by the 1870 Constitution and by statute. This tweaking of the law of courts and judges continued into the 20th Century.
By 1962, the front line of the Illinois judicial system was, to put it charitably, a mess. While the appellate courts were about the same as they are today (with an intermediate appellate court divided into 5 districts and a supreme court as the final decider of things), the lower courts were in disarray. Depending on where you lived, justice could be had at Circuit Courts, Superior Courts, Family Courts, Criminal Courts, Probate Courts, County Courts, Municipal Courts, plus Justices of Peace and, in Chicago, 103 Police Magistrate Courts. These were the tribunals where people charged with a crime or had disputes with others went for justice, and there was no unified authority to govern them.
To fix this and other problems with the judiciary, the people amended the 1870 Constitution to again radically reform the court system. The Circuit Court part of that fix was the unification of all front-line functions, the abolition of most inferior courts, and the provision that that the circuit courts "shall have unlimited original jurisdiction of all justiciable matters, and such powers of review of administrative action as may be provided by law." Rather than county courts, etc., the office of "associate judge" was created, one for each county, also elected by the people to 6 year terms. Unlike county judges, associate judges could hear all the same cases as the circuit judges. Magistrate courts continued to exist, appointed by circuit judges, but their authority was severely restricted.
The 1964 Amendment also changed the way circuit judges who wanted to stay in office at the end of their term sought reelection. While a circuit judge previously had to participate in partisan politics in every election (declaring themselves as Democrats or Republicans & facing opponents in both primary and general elections), a previously *elected* circuit judge could, at the end of his/her term, seek "retention" of that position. This meant that the elected judge would not have an opponent. Instead, an election ballot would present a simple question for the voter: "Should [insert name of previously elected circuit judge] be retained for an additional 6 year term as Circuit Judge?" If 60% or more of the voters answered "YES" to this question on the ballot, then that circuit judge was retained for another term; however, if 40% + 1 voter chose to answer "NO", then that circuit judge was dismissed at the end of his/her term.
Qualifications for judge also changed. Whereas past applicants were only required to be a citizen aged 30 years or older and have lived in the state for 5 years, circuit court candidates now had to be residents of the particular circuit where they intended to serve AND be licensed to practice law. [Side note: people can debate whether a judge should be required to have formal legal training in order to be qualified, but I for one would rather have judges who understand the elements of crimes, causes of actions and the rules of evidence; keeping that all straight in your head usually requires a law degree.]
Finally (yes, I am about to finish this up) in 1970, the Illinois Constitution was rewritten again. Considering that it had only been amended 6 years before, most of the changes to the judiciary were already baked into the re-write, but there were still some critical alternations. These included:
1. "Associate" judges were no longer elected by the people but instead *selected* by the *elected* circuit judges in their circuit. Their term was also shortened from 6 years to 4 years, and they could be reappointed by the circuit judges who were then in office (which could consist of different judges than the ones who appointed them in the first place). These judges still had the same authority to hear cases as did the circuit judges, however their reliance on the good will of the elected judiciary (rather than the people) changed their role considerably.
2. Circuit Judges assignments changed as well. While the language in the 1970 Constitution is a little vague, it became generally understood that the Constitution required at least 1 *Circuit* judge in every county, and it opened the door for some Circuit Judges to be elected by only the "residents" of one county within a circuit, while the others would remain elected "at large."
3. Magistrate courts were abolished. The circuit court was now the place to go for everything except in very limited circumstances (e.g., Workers' Compensation claims and claims made against the State itself continue to have systems of their own).
4. Judges were no longer subject to removal by the legislature, but instead by a newly created "Judicial Inquiry Board", which selected members from among the judiciary to review cases of wrongdoing and mete out punishments ranging from censure to removal from office.
That pretty much brings us up to date. Circuit Judges are elected by the people, with "Resident" judges chosen by people in just one county of a circuit, and the rest chosen "At Large" by everyone in their circuit. Associate judges are still chosen by the circuit judges (both resident and at-large).
In Champaign County, we have six (6) circuit judges, including three "resident judges" and three "at large judges". The current resident judges are Michael Q. Jones, Heidi Ladd and Jeffrey B. Ford. The current "at-large judges" are Thomas J. Difanis, Roger B. Webber, and Randall B. Rosenbaum. There are eight (8) other circuit judges in our circuit, including 4 in Macon County plus 1 in each of the counties of DeWitt, Douglas, Moultrie and Piatt. In all, there are 14 circuit judges in the 6th Judicial Circuit.
Two of the Circuit Judges currently serving in Champaign County have *not* been elected by the people, but instead hold a temporary appointment granted by the Illinois Supreme Court. These appointments are also proscribed by the Illinois Constitution and came about when two previous elected Circuit Judges (Arnold Blockman and Harry Clem), resigned in 2016. Both Roger Webber's appointment and Randall Rosenbaum's appointments expire in 2018. Both of those positions will be filled by an election in 2018, first with a primary (if there is more than one candidate for a particular political party) followed by a general election in November 2018.
Temporary appointments to a circuit judge position have no bearing on the actual election to that post. Anyone with that temporary assignment can run for that office formally but if he/she loses either a primary election or the general election, their term will shortly come to an end. While the issue of returning to an appointed judiciary has come up from time to time, voters decided in 1970 to keep the system that makes it the people who ultimately decide which candidate will become a circuit judge, to serve a six year term and to have periodic votes to decide whether to retain that judge.
The position which I am seeking is the one vacated by "At Large" Circuit Judge Harry Clem, who resigned in 2016. I will be circulating petitions to appear on the primary ballot of all six counties in our circuit, which again are Champaign, DeWitt, Douglas, Macon, Moultrie and Piatt. That process will begin sometime in September of this year. I'll discuss that process in a future post.
For more information on the history of the circuit court in Illinois, here are a few references:
Illinois Supreme Court's page on "the History of the Illinois Supreme Court"
The Illinois Constitution of 1818
The Illinois Constitution of 1848
The List of Current Circuit Judges of the 6th Circuit
I look forward to this opportunity to serve, and I ask for your support. Please share this message with your friends, contact my campaign to find more information and volunteer. Together, we bring more experience and perspective to our court system.
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