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Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2008 04:34 am

Borrowed judges leave county courts shorthanded

Even judges and lawyers can’t understand the system

The announcement earlier this month that a Menard County judge had been tapped for the Fourth District Appellate Court brought a ray of hope to the back corridors at the Sangamon County Courthouse. Operating shorthanded since Judge Tom Appleton was similarly snapped up by the appellate court in 2001, some courthouse players hoped that the ensuing shuffle would clear the way for Appleton’s bench – vacant for seven years now – to finally be filled.

But thanks to a system so complicated that even judges and lawyers claim befuddlement, it appears that Appleton’s bench will remain empty until late 2010.

“I’m okay with it,” Appleton says. “It’s the way the Supreme Court has been doing things in the last 10 years or so.”

Originally envisioned to have three judges, the appellate court has expanded over the past few years as the legislature has granted “temporary assignments” to provide needed manpower. Appleton was assigned to one of these “temporary” spots seven years ago, leaving his Circuit Court duties to be divided among local judges, some of whom privately grumble that their caseloads have increased by about 25 percent due to Appleton’s absence.

“My friends over there tell me about it with some regularity,” he says, mentioning one judge in particular. “My friend Leo Zappa would complain about sunny weather.”

Appleton’s bench has remained vacant because his assignment to the appellate court was, officially, temporary. This month, as the longest-term temp on the appellate court, Appleton has moved into the “permanent” spot vacated by the retiring Cook.

Yet that still doesn’t mean that his circuit court bench can now be filled. Appleton’s appointment is “permanent” only for the remainder of Cook’s term, at which point Appleton has to run for election. The circuit seat will remain empty until after that election, in 2010. If Appleton loses that election, he will have a choice.

“I can go back to the circuit court, or I can retire,” he says.

Only then will the circuit court regain its full complement of judges.

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