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Thursday, July 7, 2011 11:55 pm

Judging from start to finish

Sangamon County courts reorganize for efficiency

There’s something to be said about finishing what you start. As of June 1, associate judges in the Seventh Judicial Circuit Court will keep cases from the beginning to the end of a trial. Juvenile court cases will be managed by four judges who will rotate in and out instead of one.

Four associate judges will manage juvenile court, but minors will stay with the judge to whom they are assigned from the beginning. The new rotation of judges is expected to make trials move quicker and add consistency to court cases.

Associate Judge Steve Nardulli says that before the additional rotations, time off or leave from juvenile court brought cases to a “grinding halt.” Nardulli says substantial time was wasted and cases backed up.

“Keeping the same judge in every case is good,” says Associate Judge Esteban Sanchez, who used to manage all juvenile court cases.

It wasn’t uncommon for Sanchez to manage nearly 40 juvenile cases in one day up until a couple months ago. Now cases are distributed among three other associate judges, and juvenile trials are less likely to be held up because one judge takes time off for emergency or vacation.

“That was a challenge,” says Sanchez. Rotating judges in juvenile court and consistency in all circuit court cases including small claims, traffic and misdemeanor, as well as family court, is expected to lessen court visits for law enforcement and the public awaiting trials.

“Anything that the courts can do to reduce the amount of continuances would benefit everybody, but from the law enforcement perspective, it would speed things up,” says Sangamon County Sheriff Neil Williamson.

The sheriff’s office is responsible for security at the courthouse and may save time on unneeded visits if trials are less likely to be delayed.

“If you have one judge all the way through on a case, I mean he’s going to be familiar with it and he’ll be ready to make decisions or act on some kind of motions immediately rather than have to be brought to speed by different attorneys and state’s attorneys,” says Williamson. He says it would keep people out of jail at a time when inmate populations are high and would take up less medical, food and staffing costs. “We wouldn’t have to have the officers and deputies continuing to have to show up in court to testify and find out later they’re not needed,” he says.

Sangamon County has also divided all eight associate judges into two divisions: family and juvenile, and traffic and misdemeanor court.

“It is a substantial change from the way misdemeanor cases were handled,” says Sangamon County State’s Attorney John Milhiser.

Cases will not be scheduled to go to trial until a verifiable date is determined.

“No one benefits when it takes a year to get a criminal case to trial,” says Nardulli. “Memories fade, other things become more important.”

It is also more likely that cases will be postponed when assigned to various judges, who have less time to review the history of a client. Nardulli believes that judges are less likely to postpone the court process if they stay with clients, in an effort to keep their cases from piling up.

Milhiser hopes that cases will move faster. “I don’t see it as a reduction in cost but a better use of our time,” says Milhiser.

“It might not be the same judge that was handling it before. Now they’re going to have it from cradle to the grave, from the beginning of the case when it comes in to the end.”

 Contact Holly Dillemuth at hdillemuth@illinoistimes.com.


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