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U. of I. visit continues Court's practice of "riding circuit"

By Marcia M. Meis, Administrative Director of the AOIC

February 28, 2018

Over the past few years, the Supreme Court's practice of "riding circuit" has given the public, legislative and executive officials, high school students, educational leaders and the media firsthand experience and a greater appreciation for the work of the Court and its deliberative process. Having previously held oral arguments in Mt. Vernon (5th District), Ottawa (3rd District), Chicago (1st District) and Lisle (2nd District), the Court will soon hear oral arguments in the 4th District at the University of Illinois on Thursday, March 15, 2018.

For many years, the Court’s practice of “riding circuit” was the routine, not the exception. Upon becoming a state in 1818, the first Illinois Constitution created the Illinois Supreme Court and the first legislature passed a law that gave structure to the Illinois court system. Among other things, each of the four Justices was assigned a circuit in which he held trial court. This was modeled after the federal system, where United States Supreme Court Justices presided in trial level federal court districts around the country. Illinois Supreme Court Justices traveled from county seat to county seat holding court for a week or so in each locale. In addition to the circuit court duties, the Justices also held one term a year as the Illinois Supreme Court to review cases from the circuit level. The Supreme Court “riding circuit” allowed for additional interaction with the general public.

During the period of the first Constitution (1818–1848), the legislature passed various laws amending how the court operated. From 1819-1824, the Justices rode circuit. From 1825-1827, the legislature appointed circuit judges, relieving Supreme Court Justices of circuit duty. From 1828-1834, circuit judges were abolished, and Supreme Court Justices again rode circuit. From 1835-1841, the legislature appointed circuit judges, once again relieving Supreme Court Justices of circuit duty. In 1841, the legislature reorganized the court system, adding five new Supreme Court Justices, for a total of nine. The Court again rode circuit.

When the new 1848 Constitution took effect, circuit judges were popularly elected and Supreme Court Justices no longer had to preside in trial level courts. The Justices, however, continued to travel. The Second Constitution created three districts (or grand divisions) in Southern, Central, and Northern Illinois, with one term of the Illinois Supreme Court in each of the grand divisions located in Mt. Vernon, Springfield, and Ottawa, respectively. This practice continued until 1897, when the Supreme Court consolidated terms at Springfield. While holding court terms in three different parts of the state allowed the Court to come to the people, the increased case load in the second half of the 19th century had made travel burdensome.

On May 18, 1905, Illinois Governor Charles S. Deneen approved an appropriation for the site, construction and furnishing of a new home for the Illinois Supreme Court. On February 4, 1908, the Supreme Court took formal possession of the building. While the Court now routinely hears oral arguments in the magnificent Supreme Court Building in Springfield, it occasionally chooses to “ride circuit” in order to once again bring the Court to the people.

On March 15, the venue will be the Colwell Playhouse in the University of Illinois Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. The Court will hear two cases and, at the completion of oral arguments, the Justices will exit the stage and attorneys from the cases will take questions from the audience. This highly-anticipated event is a wonderful opportunity to raise awareness of the judicial branch and the critical role of the courts in interpreting state law. 

For more information on the Krannert Center oral arguments, please visit the Court’s website at illinoiscourts.gov/Media/enews/2018/022618_champaign_urbana.asp