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Legal Scholar Launches Website on Illinois Judges

Website seeks to shine light on election process, add transparency to judicial system

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August 8, 2016 | by Hilary Hurd Anyaso

CHICAGO --- A new website by a Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law scholar offers a comprehensive look at the Illinois judicial system at a time when judges are receiving increased scrutiny.

“It’s a part of a larger effort around our community, not just in Cook County, but the state as a whole, to bring greater accountability to the legal system,” said Leigh Bienen, director of the Illinois Judges Project, which has launched the website. 

“Anything that helps people shine a light on the judicial process, how laws are made, how judges are appointed -- must be a plus.”

The website -- http://illinoisjudges.law.northwestern.edu -- enables users to access thorough information on the election and appointment of all Illinois state judges sitting during the calendar year 2015, with extensive biographical and professional background information on each judge. 

The detailed data includes identification, legal education, year of bar admission, county of judgeship, dates of appointment, dates of election, political party and legal experience for every elected and appointed jurist representing the circuit courts, the appellate division and the Illinois Supreme Court.

“It just happens to be a moment in time when there’s a huge amount of attention being paid to judges, how they’re appointed, who they are, why they rule the way they do,” said Bienen, senior lecturer at Northwestern Law. 

Bienen anticipates the website will be used by lawyers and government officials, clients, political scientists, judges, journalists, though it is available to anyone. 

“When you have police shootings and judges acquitting and dismissing charges, you might want to know who these judges are,” she said. “Or when you read accounts about wrongful convictions, you wonder about the quality of trials and whether some judges were inclined to give unreliable evidence the benefit of the doubt. How did so many wrongful convictions happen in Illinois?”

The site also contains key information about the history and background of the court system from the adoption of the first state constitution on August 26, 1818, through modern day.

“The history and evolution of the court system in Illinois is a fascinating story and one worth knowing,” writes Chicago Alderman Edward M. Burke in his Introduction of the site.

There are 24 judicial circuits in Illinois, comprising one or more of the state’s 102 counties. The circuit courts are the courts of original jurisdiction. The Illinois Supreme Court, with seven justices elected from the five appellate judicial districts in the state, has mandatory jurisdiction in capital cases and in cases where the constitutionality of laws are being challenged. The supreme court also has final appellate jurisdiction and the authority to elevate trial judges to the appellate court on a temporary basis. The supreme court oversees all matters of judicial administration as well.

Bienen, who has done extensive work on capital punishment and murders in Illinois, was particularly interested in how many elected or appointed judges have previous experience with state’s attorney’s offices.

“That’s not to say a state’s attorney’s office is bad preparation for the judiciary, or unfair, but it is partisan,” she said. “A significant number of people do think our justice system is unfair, so one of the things you want to ask is: Who are these judges and how did they get where they are?” 

Bienen’s book “Murder and Its Consequences: Essays on Capital Punishment in America” (Northwestern University Press, 2010) detailed the vast disparities in who gets prosecuted for capital murder and who gets convicted and executed. Disparities are known to be linked to race, socioeconomic status and geographic region, in Illinois and elsewhere.

Bienen said the website is just another tool to make the judicial system more transparent and accessible. She hopes the information, which is presented in a simple, straightforward manner, will be widely used by the general public, journalists, government officials, as well as by lawyers, clients and those in a multiplicity of analytic disciplines.

Topics: Research