Illinois's court system was unified in 1964 when voters approved widespread changes to the state constitution, streamlining the system.
Illinois Circuit Courts
The state of Illinois is divided into 24 circuits, 18 of which encompass more than one county. The six remaining circuits are single counties with large populations.
Circuit court is the trial court for all purposes in Illinois. Its jurisdiction encompasses family, juvenile, probate, small claims, civil, criminal, and oversight of some state commissions. Circuit court judges are elected by voters to six-year terms. Associate judges are appointed by full judges to four-year terms and may hear any case except for felonies.
In a recent year, the total number of cases filed at the circuit court level was almost 3.2 million. Of that, over 82,000 were felonies, about 23,000 were juvenile cases, over 45,000 were Driving Under the Influence, and almost 53,000 were protection orders. The total number of cases has actually dropped since a high of over 4 million cases filed in 2009.
Illinois Appellate Courts
There are 55 judges in five appellate court districts in Illinois. They hear cases to determine if the lower courts were correct in applying the law. Each court has its own set of local rules. Rules are specific to each court's operation, including how and when to file motions, the amount of time each side in a case has to present its argument, and when dispositions are scheduled for completion.
A panel of three judges hears appeals cases without taking witness testimony: they review the record of the case and hear oral arguments from both sides. Two judges must agree on the final decision, which may become binding on the lower courts.
Judges are elected by voters to 10-year terms, and must run for reelection.
In a recent year there were more than 8,000 cases filed in appellate courts in Illinois, split almost evenly between criminal and civil issues.
Illinois Supreme Court
Seven justices, elected in partisan voting by district, serve the highest court in the state for 10-year terms. If a vacancy occurs, the sitting judges appoint an individual to serve until the next election, a process that is unique to Illinois.
The Supreme Court is the final authority on questions of constitutionality of laws and administers the state court system. It takes cases on appeal from lower courts as it chooses. Verdicts reached by a majority of Supreme Court justices are binding on lower courts.
In a recent year, the court had about 2,600 cases filed and disposed of an almost equal number. The number of cases filed has not changed substantially in several years.
Illinois Notable Court Cases
In the midst of turmoil over gun violence and police conduct in Chicago, an appellate court overturned a temporary injunction in mid-2016 that kept police misconduct records away from public scrutiny. After an appeals court said in 2014 that records dating back to 1967 should be available to the public, a police union had won the injunction that sealed records of police wrongdoing and complaints against officers. The information becomes public at a time when the police commissioner resigned over the delayed release of information and inaction by the police regarding an officer shooting a civilian.
An effort to reign in runaway costs of public employee pension programs was declared unconstitutional by the Illinois state Supreme Court in 2016. State legislators had passed the bill because, they said, nearly half the state's budget is spent on retirees. The three-year-old law sought to reduce pension benefits of retirees in order to preserve taxpayer supported programs but the Supreme Court, in its role as final arbiter of questions of constitutionality, determined that the efforts to cut pension costs violated the 1970 state constitution. The Supreme Court's decision was unanimous.