click to enlarge How the Illinois Supreme Court works
Carolyn Grosboll of Petersburg recently retired after 11 years as clerk of the Illinois Supreme Court.

The judiciary is the third branch of government, but in the capital city citizens typically hear more about the actions of the executive and legislative branches of state government. The judicial branch has significant responsibilities which extend far beyond hearing cases and writing opinions. The Illinois Supreme Court licenses and oversees attorneys, handles disciplinary cases for attorneys and has responsibilities for continuing legal education. Over 5,000 law firms must register with the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court appoints judges when there are vacancies on the circuit, appellate and Supreme courts and appoints people to serve on a variety of special commissions and administrative bodies.

State courts handle cases involving state laws, and federal courts handle cases related to federal laws. In accordance with the 1970 Illinois Constitution, the Illinois Supreme Court has supervisory authority over the state's circuit and appellate courts. Prior to 1964 there was no unified court system. There are now 24 judicial circuits, and each circuit is located in one of five appellate court districts. The Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts was created to assist the Supreme Court with its significant responsibility for overseeing the court system.

Three Supreme Court justices are elected from the first judicial district (Cook County) and one justice elected from each of the other four districts. For the first time since the judicial boundaries were established in 1964, the legislature changed the court district boundaries. The change was part of the recent legislative redistricting that occurs every 10 years after the U.S. census.

Justices are elected in partisan elections for 10-year terms and may run for retention in uncontested elections for additional 10-year terms. Party affiliation is not identified when running for retention. Sixty percent of those voting must vote yes in order for the judge to be retained. Many states have at-large elections of their Supreme Court justices, but the 1870 Illinois Constitution created districts. This was done to ensure Chicago didn't have too much power and that downstate Illinois would also have representation.

Illinois is one of seven states with partisan elections for the state Supreme Court. Fifteen states have nonpartisan elections, although in some cases candidates run with party endorsements. Sixteen states use the "Missouri plan," in which the governor makes appointments. In 10 states the governor appoints with Senate approval, and in two states the state legislature appoints.

Illinois Supreme Court proceedings are open to the public and are livestreamed. Annually approximately 1,600 cases are appealed to the Supreme Court and 60-70 are accepted for oral arguments. The Supreme Court convenes in the Illinois Supreme Court Building in Springfield on the second Monday in the months of September, November, January, March and May. Justices reside in the building when they are in term and have their meals together. Thus they get to know each other on a personal level.

COVID had a dramatic impact on the operations of the court. Carolyn Grosboll of Petersburg served as clerk of the Supreme Court for nearly 11 years. "The pandemic has transformed how procedures can work in the future," said Grosboll. The court developed protocols and procedures for people to participate in the proceedings remotely, which would never have occurred in the past.

Grosboll, recently retired, had a long career, working in all three branches of government. She found working with the judicial branch rewarding. She says all of the members of the court are hard-working elected officials, and everyone she worked with was there to do a good job. –Karen Witter

About The Author

Karen Ackerman Witter

Karen Ackerman Witter started freelance writing after a 35-year career in state government holding various senior leadership positions. Prior to retiring she was associate director of the Illinois State Museum for 14 years. She is the past president of the Kidzeum Board of Directors and is an active volunteer...

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