No new judges for 17th Circuit

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-110615360130656.jpg’, ”, ‘Sen. Dave Syverson’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-110615361330656.jpg’, ”, ‘Rep. Chuck Jefferson’);

Proposal is viewed as power grab by Democrats or as a way to increase minorities on the bench

The politically hot topic of dividing judicial circuits into subcircuits in eight northern Illinois counties, including Winnebago and Boone counties, is expected to be signed into law soon by Gov. Rod Blagojevich. However, the proposal will not increase the total number of judges in the 17th Judicial Circuit by two, as originally touted in a Nov. 30 hearing by State Rep. Chuck Jefferson (D-67), a supporter of the legislation.

Jefferson said Jan. 17 that the proposal will increase opportunities for minorities to be elected to the bench, rather than being appointed by other judges. The system currently allows elected judges to appoint associate judges, which legislation supporters argued has resulted in some Illinois judicial circuits to be dominated by white Republicans.

The legislation, which will affect Winnebago, Boone, Lake, McHenry, Kane, DeKalb and Kendall counties, subdivides the judicial circuits while keeping the same total number of judges in the circuit. Rather than being appointed to those positions, as was previously done, judges in the sub-circuits would face election. Specifically, the 17th Judicial Circuit, which includes Winnebago and Boone counties, would be divided into four subcircuits.

Republicans argued the change was driven more by politics than concern for increasing minority representation on the bench. Republicans such as State Sen. Dave Syverson (R-34) argued that Democrats wanted to take judicial seats away from Republican-controlled circuits, and that the proposal may be challenged in court by unspecified individuals or groups.

Syverson said: “The maps that were drawn were clearly meant for political boundaries [rather] than racial boundaries. The concerns I had were similar to what has happened in Chicago.”

Syverson asserted that 2003 legislation, which carved up Cook County’s judicial circuit, was motivated by Chicago ward bosses’ desire to have more control over judges in that area. He also questioned why Democratic leaders would model legislation after Cook County when that region has been the subject of several judicial corruption scandals in the past.

Even though the total number of judges in the 17th Judicial Circuit would not increase under the proposed law, Jefferson said he is still working to get two additional judges to help relieve crowded conditions in Winnebago County’s jail.

Jefferson estimated that the minority population incarcerated in the jail is between 65 to 70 percent. However, he said the Rockford area has never had a minority judge during the last 150 years.

Syverson countered that area voters have elected women and Democrats to the bench, and that if a qualified minority ran for judge in this area, they would likely be elected under the current system.

When asked if Winnebago County could forge an agreement with the state to use some of Winnebago County’s jail tax money to pay the state to hire two additional judges, Jefferson said, “That’s not a bad idea.” Jefferson added that he wasn’t sure if there were any laws that would prevent such a redistribution and allotment of funds.

Syverson said he has been exploring the issue for six months, and is willing to work with Jefferson. He added that his staff has been examining the legality of the idea, such as pension and benefit issues. Syverson hopes to have details about the idea during the next legislative session, which begins in February.

Meanwhile, Winnebago County is embroiled in a controversial federal jail overcrowding lawsuit that resulted in a 16 percent raise in the county’s sales tax that is supposed to pay for jail overcrowding remedies.

Like Winnebago County, Cook County is also facing a federal jail overcrowding lawsuit. However, Cook County chose to examine increasing the efficiency of the criminal justice system before enlarging jail capacity and raising taxes to pay for overcrowding solutions.

Winnebago County’s sales tax increased from 6.25 percent to 7.25 percent in July 2003. During its first year, the jail tax collected more than $25.2 million—$2.1 million more than was estimated by county officials. The extra money, which could possibly be used to hire more judges, is primarily being used to hire 15 additional corrections officers, buy a van and purchase other items such as bed linen.

Most of the jail tax money will be used to pay for construction, maintenance, staffing and financing of a 1,212-bed, 80-foot high, $130 million jail. The structure and parking will encompass four square blocks that detractors argue will be a blight on Rockford’s downtown and exacerbate Winnebago County’s perennially high crime rates.

Supporters of the jail, including nearly all county officials, argue the new facility will be aesthetically appealing, meet requirements of the jail lawsuit agreement, and help reduce crime rates.

Supporters of the county’s plan have found it increasingly more difficult to defend the jail tax and construction of the facility, due to revelations that the plaintiff in the case doesn’t support the county’s efforts.

Timothy Chatmon, plaintiff in Winnebago County’s jail lawsuit, didn’t approve the agreement that called for construction of the jail (see Sept. 29 article “Jail lawsuit plaintiff urges tax repeal”). Chatmon reiterated his desire to fire his attorneys in that case, during a Jan. 17 interview. John F. Heckinger Jr., and Thomas E. Greenwald represent Chatmon in the ongoing federal lawsuit.

Heckinger had his law license suspended for 60 days last summer for “misconduct” in connection with “unauthorized” use of his clients’ funds several years ago.

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