Judicial Reform

Illinois judges uphold the laws and constitution of our state. Explore what Illinois’ judicial system should look like to ensure that everyone is guaranteed access to justice.

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What is Judicial Reform?

Judicial reform at the state level focuses on changes we could make to the structure or functions of the judicial branch of our state government or to selection process for its members.

Illinois’s Judicial Branch

The judicial branch upholds the constitution and the laws of Illinois. It is made up of a seven-member supreme court, an appellate court, and a circuit court. Judges of the supreme court and appellate court serve 10-year terms. The circuit court judges serve for six years, and the associate judges, who serve beneath the circuit court judges, serve for four. 

The Illinois Appellate Court has 54 judges, The majority of the judges (18 in the First District, and between seven and nine in each of the Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Districts) are elected, serving for 10 years. The remaining judges are appointed by the Supreme Court of Illinois to fill any vacancies that occurred between elections.[4]

Circuit court judges hear the majority of the cases in Illinois. The chief judge in their district decides which cases they will preside over. Illinois has five judicial districts.

Judges make decisions about fundamental issues that affect all of us, like family life, education, health care, housing, employment, discrimination, civil rights and public safety, etc. The decisions they make affect the lives of thousands of people each year.

A few well-known cases decided by the Illinois Supreme Court recently include:

Re-thinking sentencing for juveniles given life without the option of parole

Striking down of eavesdropping law

Parental notification of abortion

Inadequate pre-trial services for defendants in Cook County


What are some current topics for reform?

Elections

Illinois is one of 38 states that conduct elections for their courts, including partisan and nonpartisan contested elections and up-or-down judicial retention votes.  

Illinois judges are initially chosen in partisan elections for all three judicial office levels, but the state’s supreme court draws the most attention. Once elected, judges run in uncontested, nonpartisan retention elections to serve additional terms. 

In response to criticisms that countywide elections resulted in an insufficient number of minorities and Republicans on the bench in Cook County, smaller sub-circuit judicial elections were established. 

When people go to the ballot box, they often skip voting for the judicial races. Only 71% of people who voted in the last primary also cast a ballot for one of the vacancies in a circuit court.

Illinois voters have never rejected a supreme court justice seeking to remain on the bench, but a few judges at the lower level occasionally fail to be returned to the bench. If a justice is removed from one of those lower courts, the supreme court gets to pick an interim replacement to fill the vacancy.

Money in judicial races

In 2004, Illinois saw the most expensive judicial election campaign in history, with the two candidates for a district-based seat on the supreme court raising a combined $9.3 million--more than was raised in 18 of the 34 U.S. Senate races that year. Major contributors included trial lawyers, labor leaders, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the American Tort Reform Association. These groups had a vested interest in the outcome of the race. 

The judicial district represented by the seat includes Madison County, a jurisdiction that has become nationally known for large tort awards, and the justice who holds this seat has the authority to fill judicial vacancies that arise in the district's trial courts between elections.  

Illinois ranks 11th nationally for spending on judicial elections, 9th on TV ad spending, and 7th for candidate fundraising in 2012. Much of this money comes from lawyers and other professionals interested in influence and from special interest groups like PACs.

Current debates about judicial elections: 

Are partisan elections the best way to choose judges?

Arguments in favor:

  • Elections keep courts independent of other branches of government and accountable to the voters.
  • Elections offer voters the chance to learn about their judges.
  • Elections provide the surest guarantee that women and minorities will be elected to the bench.

Arguments against:

  • Electing judges means they must raise money for campaigns, which could make it difficult to remain impartial.
  • Voters are uninformed about judicial races, so elections do not guarantee that the most qualified person is elected to sit the bench.
  • Elections keep qualified applicants, who may not like the idea of political campaigning, from seeking office.

Other methods considered:

Some states use other methods to attempt to ensure that judges are selected based on their qualifications and to help insulate them from political pressure. This idea is known as “merit selection” or “merit retention.”

Could we make it easier for voters to know more about the judges they’re asked to vote for? Voter guides and judicial performance evaluations could give ordinary citizens more information. But will voters seek out that information for the large number of names on the ballot?

Public financing is an option that some people think could provide judicial candidates with an alternative path to running a competitive race without needing to rely on contributions from lawyers and litigants, or from special interest groups seeking to influence judicial decision-making. However, it cannot address the rising issue of independent expenditures in judicial campaigns (third party ads being placed to support or oppose a particular candidate).

States could also consider different laws regarding campaign finance, such as requiring disclosure of campaign contributions and requirements for judges to recuse themselves in cases involving donors.

Resources on Judicial elections:

Justice at Stake

Justice for Sale

Vote for Judges

Judicial Selection in the States: Illinois

New Politics Report 2012

Voting for Judges: Everyone Can, Few Do

Our Courts

The Informed Voters. Fair Judges. Project

Prisoners in 2011

Incarceration

As of March 18, 2014, 1,345 people in Illinois had been in jail for one to two years before or during their trials; 503 for two to three years; 187 for three to four years; and 142 for four to nine years. The average length of stay rose from 49 days to 57 from 2007 to 2012. 

The incarceration rate among African Americans is nine times higher than the rate for whites in the state of Illinois, and as of 2011, more than 2,000 people in Illinois prisons were non-citizens, meaning they did not get to vote for the judge who presided over their case.

The Justice Index rates Illinois 47th out of 50 states for its ability to provide people in poverty with access to an attorney, for helping those who choose to represent themselves, and for providing certified translators to non-English speakers and sign language interpreters for the hearing-impaired, according to the National Center for Access to Justice.

The Supreme Court recently ruled that the Cook County Circuit Court (which represents Chicago) should improve its pretrial services—the processes and resources for how it handles people before their trials begin. This includes decisions like whether people appearing before the court should be held in custody or released, when trial dates are set, etc. 

Illinois needs to reform its pre-trial services. What is a good way to decide whether or not people need to be held in custody while they await trial? 

How can we make sure our courts reflect the diversity of our state?

Resources:

On Race in our Judicial System

Supreme Court Caseload Statistics

Total All Districts of Appellate Court Criminal and Civil Caseload Statistics