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Relief at Last

By Chief Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier C

August 26, 2019

Each July since becoming Chief Justice, I have had the privilege of attending the annual meeting of the Conference of Chief Justices, an organization founded in 1949 to provide an opportunity for the highest judicial officers of U.S. states and territories to meet and discuss matters of importance to their judicial systems. At these meetings, it is not at all unusual to hear representatives from other jurisdictions complain how dysfunctional their courts have become. Fortunately, that has not been a problem here. Now, and throughout my tenure on the Illinois Supreme Court, its members have carried out their Constitutional responsibilities in a collegial, cooperative and completely professional way. If any dysfunction has plagued us, it has come from the other branches of government.

Regular readers of this column will know what I mean. Year in and year out, conflict between the executive branch and the General Assembly exacerbated the state’s financial woes and sent the courts scrambling to find new strategies for meeting their obligations under the law. At one point, the state went nearly 800 days without a full budget. For five straight years, the Supreme Court’s appropriation level remained flat as the expenses we were required to meet continued to mount. We were rapidly approaching the breaking point, especially with respect to reimbursement for probation services.

Fortunately, there has been a dramatic change. This year – for the first time – I was able to report to my colleagues at the Conference of Chief Justices that Illinois could not only boast of a functional court, but also of a government that was finally able to provide the judicial branch with a timely and workable budget. For Fiscal Year 2020, our appropriation from the General Revenue Fund was increased to $405,321,200, a figure that is $60.5 million higher than each of the previous five years.

While substantial, this long overdue increase is hardly a windfall. Rather than fund new initiatives, it will be used primarily to catch up on existing financial responsibilities that have continued to rise even as our budget remained stagnant. Most significant will be the change in our level of probation reimbursement, which had fallen far below statutory requirements. In the 2019 fiscal year, the allocation to probation was $82,825,500. This year, FY 2020, it will be $132,000,000, an increase of nearly 60%. At this new level, the court will once again be able to provide full funding for authorized probation officer positions and enable counties to establish some badly needed new positions.

The FY2020 appropriation will also provide sufficient resources for us to fund all judicial positions authorized by law, along with the statutorily-determined cost of living increases, assuming we continue the current austerity measure of holding vacancies open for 30 days, which we plan to do. We will likewise have adequate resources to meet our payroll for non-judicial personnel; to maintain operational expenses for the Supreme Court, the five Appellate Districts, and the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts; to continue reimbursement to circuit courts for use of certified and registered court interpreters; to reimburse counties for authorized appointments of counsel and expert witnesses pursuant to the Sexually Violent Persons Commitment Act; to pay annual stipends to each circuit court clerk as provided by law; and to cover projected expenses for continuation of the Court’s critically-important e-filing initiative. With respect to that last item, I am pleased to report that an important milestone has just been reached. This summer, DuPage fully transitioned into the Court’s e-FileIL system for civil cases, meaning that the system now includes every county in every circuit in the State of Illinois.

Our success in obtaining a workable budget after so many years was the result of a combination of many factors. General improvement in the State’s economic condition certainly played a part. Of equal or greater importance, however, were the tireless efforts by officials and staff representing the court, the legislature and the Governor’s office to share relevant information and to educate one another on the problems and priorities of their respective branches of government. With respect to the Judicial Branch, I would like to give special recognition to my colleagues on the Supreme Court; Marcia Meis, Director of our Administrative Office; Jim Morphew, our liaison to the Legislature; and the staff of the Administrative Office, particularly Rich Adkins, Kara McCaffrey and Chris Bonjean. Through your efforts we have taken a major step forward in our ongoing effort to provide the residents of this State with a judicial process that is efficient, effective and fair as guaranteed by the U.S. and Illinois Constitutions. Thanks to all of you.