If the confirmation hearings over the last couple of months haven’t focused attention on our courts, I’m really not sure what can.
But as much as the federal courts receive the attention of the media and our nation’s law schools, the truth is that the state courts—Champaign County Court, Piatt County Court, Macon County Court, etc.—and the Appellate and state Supreme Courts likely have a very strong impact on your and your neighbor’s daily lives in a more direct way than many of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions, or even Federal District Court and Federal Appellate Court decisions, do.
Indeed, it is the state courts that have jurisdiction over all matters except those specifically reserved for the federal courts, a number which is extremely limited.
In the Sixth Judicial Circuit, in which Champaign County is one of six counties (Champaign; Macon,where Decatur is located; Piatt; Douglas; Moultrie; and DeWitt), there are, at the time of this writing, 14 Circuit Judges: all of them white, all of them Republican, all but one of them male.
Why does that matter? It is the Circuit Judges who preside over felony cases as a matter of right. So when there is a trial, it is those judges—all white and all but one male—who decide issues of what evidence to allow in and what to keep out, under interpretations of the rule of evidence and other statutory requirements. And if the accused pleads guilty or is found guilty by a jury, it is that judge who decides whether the person’s individual circumstances are relevant and matter.
Traffic cases, domestic violence, adoption, custody (now called parental allocation) and almost all criminal cases are decided by the state courts, which are divided up into circuits and have county courthouses, including the Champaign County Courthouse in downtown Urbana. If you are involved in any such case, it is likely an associate judge, appointed by the circuit judges (rather than having been voted on by the public), and sometimes a circuit judge elected by the voters or appointed by the circuit judges, that decides your fate.
When it comes to misdemeanor and felony criminal cases, whether the allegation is of assault, battery, domestic battery, theft, arson or murder, or anything in between, while the state’s attorney decides whether to charge certain offenses as misdemeanors—for which a criminal sentence can be no more than 364 days in jail—or felonies—which can include a sentence of incarceration of years (and years)—at the state court level it is the judge who ultimately decides what the penalty will be if someone pleads guilty or is found guilty by a jury.
With so much power and discretion, limited by statutes that prescribe what factors related to the person’s life and to the offense committed are to be considered, it is the local judges—those that are elected by the voters as circuit judges, appointed as circuit judges by the Illinois Supreme Court Justice from our district (currently Rita Garman, who has only appointed Republicans to vacant circuit judgeships), or appointed as associate judges by the circuit judges—who have so much influence over the rest of an individual’s life. This is what makes that judge’s understanding of the law, and of the people he or she is sentencing, so important—arguably more important than, or at least as important as, the understanding of whoever is appointed by the President and approved by the U.S. Senate for a lifetime seat on the Federal Circuit, Appellate or Supreme Courts.
So much of what we think, what we project on others and what we assume of those we interact with comes from our life experiences. If a judge’s only experience with African Americans is watching them on TV or movies typecast as criminals and drug dealers, than how can they assume they will be treated as anything but that by a judge in a bond or sentencing hearing?
If judges’ only experience is that of privilege—that when they owe $1,000 or $5,000, they can just put it on the credit card, take out a loan, or pay it from their $179,000 salary—then how can they understand that even paying $100, much less $500 or $1,000, to bond out of jail is next to impossible when the breadwinner for the family makes $9 an hour at McDonalds?
According to the Illinois State Bar Association, as of 2010, circuit court judges make $178,835, and associate judges $169,893. So when those judges are deciding a sentence that includes a fine on top of court costs, will they understand how difficult it is and how much time it takes for a defendant, who may earn $20,000 a year, or have a household income of $40,000 a year that includes caring for children and perhaps an elderly family member, to pay those costs? Will they understand how difficult it is to raise even $1,000 to get a family member—often the main breadwinner for the family—out of jail so that he or she can go back to work and earn $9 per hour to feed his or her family?
It is the lack of diversity on the courts in Central Illinois—in terms of party, race, economic circumstance and background, to the areas and types of clients that judges work with and/or socialize with—that often has the greatest impact on people’s lives once they become involved with the court system, whether they are ultimately found guilty, or simply must deal with a bond while they wait for a trial or resolution of their case, including a possible dismissal.
Indeed, the appointment of two women as associate judges in Champaign County has already made a big difference in how ordinary people view the courts. When the first African American judge ever (ever!) in Champaign County was appointed in 2015, there was a change in how people felt they were being judged—for the better. When poor people were accused of damaging homes they rented or violating rules, they didn’t always win, but they felt their voices were heard, and that their race, their ability to speak English, or their citizenship status (one landlord referred to the tenants he was suing as “illegal aliens”) would not count against them in a judge’s decision about whether they were being truthful.
In family law, having a woman hear a divorce and custody case, where a woman didn’t have bruises or broken bones but both parties testified (just from different perspectives) to issues of control that one party had over the other, means the judge is able to understand those issues in a way that her older, more experienced male counterparts likely couldn’t begin to.
The more we elect judges who have experience in their daily life and in their professional life that helps them understand the circumstances of the people they judge, the more the court system—or at least our judiciary—will be able to make decisions that allow defendants, parents, renters, debtors and others who interact with the courts to move on with their lives and their families in a productive way that benefits the entire community.
Ruth Wyman has been an attorney in Champaign County since 2004, focusing her practice on family law and criminal defense work. Ruth was recently awarded the 2018 Community Legal Services Award by the Sixth Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Committee.