Judicial Perspective: What real trial judges do

Hon. Rita M. Novak

By Hon. Rita M. Novak
President, Illinois Judges Association and Associate Judge, Circuit Court of Cook County

The public view of the job of a trial judge is probably shaped by television and movies. If you watch “reality” shows, the so-called judges, actually former judges who opted for careers as highly entertaining actors, behave rudely, shout at people, and never are seen preparing for a case. This is a fictitious depiction of how judges conduct themselves or do their work.

The Illinois Supreme Court has rules for judges that we are required to follow. These rules are called the Code of Judicial Conduct. You can read these rules at the Illinois Supreme Court website: www.state.il.us (click on “Rules”). If Illinois judges treated litigants like reality show “judgertainers,” we’d all be disciplined!

Judges who treat litigants without courtesy and respect must answer to the Illinois Courts Commission, which is responsible for judicial discipline. Judges set the tone for courtroom conduct.

On television and in movies, judges often hear only criminal cases. In reality, Illinois trial judges hear traffic, misdemeanor, felony, juvenile, divorce, probate, chancery, small claims, civil cases where more money is at stake (like auto accidents, personal injury, medical malpractice) and many other types of cases. Some days, judges can be in the courtroom all day and into the night. But judges have many aspects of their job that need to be done outside the courtroom.

In most courtrooms, judges have to read pleadings and reports before they can listen to evidence and arguments to properly rule. For example, in juvenile court, a judge can have several hundred pages of reports to read each day on abuse and neglect cases. In civil law cases, judges have many motions and pleadings to read for each court day.

Most trials — unlike what is shown on TV or in movies — are heard by judges without juries. Judges need to read and review their notes, any exhibits and case law given them by the parties before ruling on any trial that takes more than a short time. Many complicated cases can take one full week or more. When there are juries, judges need to wait and be available as juries deliberate. Often, this can go long into the night. Judges are required to be readily available if there are questions or issues that arise while the jury deliberates.

Trial judges need to constantly read the new decisions of the Illinois supreme and appellate courts to keep current in their knowledge of the law. Trial judges are required to follow those legal decisions in making their own rulings. Again, you can go to the Illinois Supreme Court website and see how many new cases are decided by the supreme and appellate courts each month. Click on the “opinions” box on the left side of the page.

Judges are required to attend 30 hours of judicial training every two years to keep up with changes in the law. Many judges are appointed by the Illinois Supreme Court to serve on committees in different areas of the law. These committees meet on a regular basis to discuss issues and problems in their respective areas. For example, the Supreme Court Committee on Education works to prepare the judicial training attended by judges. They pick topics and speakers in every area of the law. These speakers, usually judges, spend hours preparing to present to their fellow judges. All this work must be done outside of the courtroom.

Judges are often invited to speak to community groups. For example, the Illinois Judges Association has two programs — “7 reasons to leave the party” and “The Courtroom in the Classroom” — that have been given to thousands of students across Illinois. These programs are presented to the students at their schools by local judges.

Judges are often asked to speak at seminars for lawyers. Lawyers, too, have a requirement to attend continuing training to keep current in the law. Judges need to spend time preparing and attending these educational programs.

Each circuit court in Illinois must have judges available to sign arrest warrants, search warrants or orders of protection 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Most circuits have bond court every day, including Saturdays, Sundays and holidays.

Many trial court judges prepare written opinions of their decisions in more complicated cases. For example, in divorce cases with property or custody issues, judges often write their opinion, so the parties can better understand their reasoning behind the ruling. Many judges write articles (like this one!) for different publications.

So, just because a judge is not sitting on the bench does not mean he or she isn’t busy. Don’t confuse what you see on TV and the movies for the real thing!

This is the fourth in a series of articles called “Judicial Perspective” distributed by the Illinois Judges Association. For further information about the Illinois Judges Association, visit www.ija.org.

From the Nov. 14-20, 2012, issue

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