Illinois Supreme Court justice Thomas Kilbride came to Knox on Wednesday to speak about his work to transform Illinois’s justice system into a more accessible and practical institution.
After spending nearly 20 years working in legal aid and small practices, Kilbride won his statewide election for the Supreme Court in 2000. Since then, he has been retained for another 10 year period in 2010, with his current term running out in 2020. Though he declined to comment on whether he intended to run for another term next year, Kilbride answered many questions from the crowd candidly.
On hand were several Knox faculty members and students dressed in all-white and laying signs by their chairs that said, among other things, “Keep IL families together.”
This demonstration was led by Associate Professor of English Emily Anderson on behalf of Assistant Professor of History Danielle Fatkin, who was also in attendance. Anderson asked Kilbride about his decision to join in a unanimous ruling in favor of Fatkin’s ex-husband in a case involving custody of the couple’s two children. The decision by the Illinois Supreme Court, handed down in January of this year, gave Fatkin’s ex-husband permission to relocate to Virginia with the couple’s children.
Kilbride began his answer by noting that his daughter is also going through a custody battle through the court system, and that his work on such issues during his time as a practicing lawyer proved to him that these cases were “some of the most heart-wrenching kind of work that lawyers do and judges do in the context of deciding those cases, and in my case as an attorney presenting them in the trial court. Nobody is a winner or loser when both parents are fighting over a child.”
Moving to speak on the specific circumstances surrounding this case, Kilbride explained the limits legally imposed on the Supreme Court justices when weighing a ruling.
“We don’t get to reweigh the evidence, we don’t get to make any factual findings,” Kilbride said. “We have to look at the facts, we have to give deference — that’s what the law says — to the trial court judge whether he or she is right or wrong in the decisions they made.”
Speaking on the issue of accessibility to the justice system, Kilbride noted his support for JusticeCorps, an AmeriCorps legal aid program designed to help self-represented individuals navigate the complexities of the judicial system free of charge. In addition, Kilbride was instrumental in the Access to Justice Commission’s work providing legal resources for self-represented individuals in Illinois courts.
“The commission was started because there has been a growing, what some circuit court clerks refer to as a tsunami, of a number in the thousands of statewide self-represented litigants who come to court needing representation but they don’t have the funds,” Kilbride said.
When asked about the impact implicit racial and socio-economic biases may have on people of color’s access to justice, Kilbride agreed that the system was far from perfect.
“There is a serious justice gap in the nation and in the state of Illinois between those who can afford attorneys and those who cannot,” Kilbride said.
As chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, Kilbride worked to decrease incarceration rates for non-violent drug offenses, though he acknowledged the Illinois justice system’s influence is weakened by their lack of proper funding.
“We laid out for the legislature … why it was more economically feasible for the state of Illinois to not incarcerate people on low level, non-violent drug offenses, versus putting someone in jail on the offense … and don’t produce anything of benefit for the state of Illinois,” Kilbride said.
When asked about her reactions from the session, Anderson was grateful for the answers Kilbride provided, but felt there was a larger question the public needs to start focusing more attention on.
“I feel like at this point, the solution would be to educate people that our families are more vulnerable than we think and that we need to educate ourselves about which judges and justices we’re electing and what their records have been,” Anderson said.
Sam Jacobson contributed reporting to this story. Jonathan Schrag is a JusticeCorps intern.