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McLean County Court Faces Year Of Changes

Judith Valente
Judge Lee Ann Hill in her chambers. She says the court is adapting to changes in filing procedures and the setting of bonds, as well as the possible retirement of a half dozen judges.

There have been a number of changes at the McLean County Circuit Court, including revisions to drug laws and the bond-setting structure, aimed at keeping low-level offenders out of jail. Earlier this month, the court established a new, mandatory electronic filing system.

Additional changes are on the horizon, including the expected retirement of as many as six of the 21 judges in the circuit.

Associate Judge Lee Ann Hill will address a number of those changes at a talk at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Moses Montefiore Temple in Bloomington, sponsored by the McLean County League of Women Voters.

Hill sat down for a far ranging interview in her chambers. She has been on the bench for nearly 10 years, serving in the family division and handling criminal misdemeanor cases. She said many of the changes are positive, aimed at improving access to justice for defendants.

One of the more “significant changes," Hill said, involves the way bonds are set. She said the court is moving to setting fewer cash bonds in favor of personal recognizance bonds in less serious cases, involving victimless crimes.

She said cash bonds can prove particularly onerous for low-income defendants and often result in those with lower incomes spending far more time in jail than more affluent defendants.

Defendants are often let out of jail on personal recognizance if their offense is low-level,  if they are not considered a danger to community, and if the judge and prosecutors believe the person is likely to show up for future hearings.  

“In many states and nationally, they are arguing to get away from cash bonds because they affect the poor and indigent more than anyone else,” Hill said.

“We will never go to a completely no cash bond system,” she added, “but I think we will see in more and more low-level offenses the setting of no cash bond.”

Those who don’t show up for a court hearing after being released on bond or personal recognizance will face a warrant for their arrest, Hill said.

Justice Corps and Paperless Filing

Hill cited the establishment of a Justice Corps under former Chief Judge Elizabeth Robb as another of the major steps in recent years toward providing better access to justice.

The service, located in the courthouse’s Law Library, allows law students and other volunteers to help citizens look up statutes, locate forms and generally navigate through the court system, short of offering legal advice.

One of the biggest changes affecting both lawyers and their clients went into effect Jan. 1: a new paperless civil filing system.

A new state mandate requires all parties in civil cases to file motions, pleadings and other court papers electronically. Electronic filing doesn’t apply yet to criminal or juvenile cases.

Hill called the rule a natural outgrowth of advances in technology. She said electronic filing makes record-finding and retention easier. However, it could prove a burden for citizens who don't have legal representation or easy access to a computer, email or a cell phone.

“You can have pro se litigants who are technologically impaired or not technologically educated or don’t have cell phones or email, (and) the mandates that are placed on us make it more difficult for these (unrepresented) litigants,” Hill said.

She said she believes the public will eventually adapt to the new requirement. The circuit court clerk’s office is providing handouts and has been trying to walk people through the new system, she said.

“But anytime you are dealing with technology, you are dealing with glitches, and sometimes that can also slow things down," she said.

Waivers are available for people without access to computers, cellphones or email. But the process to get waivers can be arduous for people as well, Hill said.

“We try to give out handouts that explain the process and try to use language that is understandable. It’s not like reading a computer manual,” Hill said.

Retiring Judges

Hill said McLean County faces a major shakeup in its judiciary over the next 18 months, with as many as six of the 21 judges potentially leaving the bench.

Hill said she plans to retire at the end of this year. She was an assistant public defender and criminal defense attorney in private practice before being appointed to the Eleventh Judicial Circuit in 2008.

On Monday, Robert Freitag, who handles major felony and drug cases, announced his retirement. Chief Judge Kevin Fitzgerald previously announced his retirement, and Associate Judge David Butler, who handles many of the landlord-tenant, traffic and small claims cases, has said he too will retire at the end of this year.

Judge Thomas Harris of Logan County, who has been on assignment to the Fourth District Appellate Court, is now running unopposed for a seat on that court. If elected, it would free up his current seat in Logan County, which, like McLean County, is part of the the Eleventh Judicial Circuit.

Hill said one other judge has expressed interest privately in retiring, but she declined to name that judge publicly. Others currently on the bench have enough years of service for retirement.

The turnover would mean nearly a quarter of the local judiciary would change within the next 18 months.

“What you lose is institutional memory,” Hill said.

She said the potential turnover could provide an opportunity to add to the diversity of the court. There is currently one Hispanic in the circuit, Judge Pablo Eves of McLean County. There are no African-Americans and only four women on the 21-member bench.

The turnover means some of the current judges who are serving as associates can now run for election for full circuit judgeships. The Illinois Supreme Court can appoint associate judges to fill the vacancies left by judges with unexpired elected terms.

You can also listen to the full interview:

GLT's full interview with Judge Lee Ann Hill.

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