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Rise in appeals prompts state appellate courts to implement changes

A man in a suit stands in front of a red wall that reads WGLT
Lyndsay Jones
Justice Eugene Doherty with the Fourth District Appellate Court.

A rise in appeals cases following implementation of the Pretrial Fairness Act [PFA] last year has led the Illinois Supreme Court to adopt new rules that govern such appeals.

The changes come after the high court convened a five-person task force in January to address an “unprecedented and unsustainable” load on the courts tasked with reviewing whether lower court judges applied the law correctly. The task force was comprised of five appellate court judges.

Prior to the PFA’s implementation last September, it was possible, but not common, for criminal defendants to appeal the bond a judge had set for them. According to the task force’s March report, there were 171 such cases filed over a period of 10 years, or about 17 per year.

Prior to the changes that went into effect April 15, that caseload was projected to total 4,557 each year — and in the five months following the PFA’s implementation, some 1,900 detention appeals were filed, according to the report.

“That’s just too much of a change in too short of a time,” Justice Eugene Doherty, a task force member with the Fourth District Appellate Court, said in an interview on WGLT’s Sound Ideas. “That is why the task force was formed: To put that additional caseload onto the appellate court system without providing any additional resources created a crisis.”

The rise in appeals is related to the shift in pretrial detention practices: With paying bond no longer the standard, whether a person remains detained in jail while awaiting trial is determined based on the charges faced and whether a person is considered a flight risk or threat to the community, among other criteria.

Given the systematic change, a rise in detention appeals filings was anticipated, the report noted — but not by 268%.

“Appellate courts are supposed to be the ones that slow it down, take a deep dive, explore the law with greater time and resources than a trial judge ever could. It was changing our mode of operations because instead of having that deep dive opportunity, it’s like you're swatting these cases — you get a case done and there’s three more that come in the door,” Doherty said.

The task force proposed recommendations aimed at making the appeals process one that allows for “meaningful review of decisions”; the changes approved by the Illinois Supreme Court went into effect on April 15.

Among the changes are:

  • Requiring any issues with the detention decision be raised via filing a motion at the trial court level being going to the appeals court. The motion filed at with the trial court must contain any/all issues to be raised at the appeals court level.
  • Removing a 14-day deadline to file an appeal.
  • Only allowing “one at a time” appeals in the case of parties filing multiple appeals for multiple detention decisions.

“The previous process made it easy to appeal in name, but in function, it was falling short of effectively representing defendants,” Doherty said. “What we want is to make it as easy as possible for an attorney to appeal for their client, but to make it a true appeal.”
Prior to April 15, he said, appeals courts received notices of appeal that failed to contain arguments for overturning detention decisions, which he said makes it difficult for the appellate court to decide such cases. There may have been an expectation that a separate attorney working on an appeals case would file a memorandum on behalf of a defendant, explaining why the detention should be overturned, but Doherty said those were not filed as expected.

“In half of the cases, maybe as much as 60% of the cases, that never comes. When they don’t file, it leaves us with this skeletal notice of appeal and no real argument made for the defendant,” he said. “That’s not an appeal. That’s the illusion of an appeal.”

Doherty said the changes were drafted with the intention of nudging trial attorneys to be more “thoughtful” about the cases they appeal and the manner in which they do so.

Stakeholders outside of the appellate court system, including the attorney general, the States Attorneys Association, Public Defender Association, Clerks of the Appellate Court Districts and more, were consulted as part of the task force’s 45-day review process.

Doherty said judiciary officials are still in the process of deciding what data to collect to measure the impact the changes have on the appellate courts; one easy tell, he said, will be the volume of filings.

“We hope that we were faithful to the idea of preserving, in substance, the ability of defendants to appeal, but not just generating an assembly line of appeals that weren’t really doing justice to the defendant either,” he said. “The underlying purpose here is not to stifle appeals, but to promote effective appeals. If our system was being bogged down by ineffective appeals, nobody wins.”

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.