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Garman lays out priorities for her term as chief justice; calls on attorneys to help educate public, participate more

By Bethany Krajelis | Dec 12, 2013

She may not have a so-called agenda for her three-year term, but Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Rita Garman said she does have four goals she believes she can achieve with the help of the state’s bar.

Garman laid out her priorities Wednesday at a luncheon the Appellate Lawyers Association, Chicago Bar Association, Illinois State Bar Association and Women’s Bar Association of Illinois hosted in honor of the new chief justice at The Standard Club in Chicago.

Her goals include continuing the court’s emphasis on civility and professionalism, ensuring prompt decision making at all levels of the court system, placing a focus on judicial education and supporting the increased use of technology in courthouses throughout Illinois.

Garman also expressed a desire to foster a closer relationship between the bench and the bar, shared concerns that the media may not fully understand the judicial system when reporting on it and called on attorneys to help clear up misunderstandings about the law.

Although she doesn’t have a specific project or particular issue she intends to hone in on during her term, Garman told attendants of the event that she just “wants to do the work that the Constitution assigns” to the judiciary on behalf of the state.

“And I want to do this work as efficiently and effectively as possible,” said Garman, who took the reins of the high court from Justice Thomas Kilbride in October.

She said transparency is an aspect of her goals and that the state’s bar associations can serve an important role in helping the Supreme Court be more open and accessible to the public.

As an example, Garman pointed to last year’s rule change that allows cameras in courtrooms, a program that marked one of Kilbride’s initiatives as chief justice.

While it provides members of the public “a window into court proceedings,” Garman said showing a hearing on television “does not adequately inform the public” because it doesn’t provide context to explain the oft-complicated issues that play out in courtrooms.

Part of the responsibility for providing the public proper context and explanation falls on the media, Garman said.

She, however, said she has become concerned that some members of the media don't fully understand how the judiciary works.

Garman asked attendants how often they want to yell at the TV screen when the media says a jury found a defendant innocent, rather than not guilty, and if they shake their heads when the media announces that a losing party in state court plans to take their case to federal court.

Although there are numerous misunderstandings about the law and the legal system as a whole, Garman said members of the judiciary can only talk to the public in general terms and can’t speak about specific cases or issues due to ethical rules.

But, attorneys “can certainly do so,” she said, adding that they can submit letters to the editor when newspaper articles and editorials misstate the basic principles of the law. She said they can also make education a part of their practice.

For instance, Garman said, an attorney for Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation pens a weekly column to answer readers’ questions in The News-Gazette in Champaign and that her local public radio station airs a show on legal issues.

And here in Chicago, Garman said that Karen Conti, a partner at Beerman Pritkin Mirabelli Swerdlove LLP, has hosted a radio program called “Legally Speaking” on WGN-AM for more than two decades.

Whether it is on their own or through their bar association, Garman urged attorneys to think about taking on such projects. She said the topic doesn’t matter as long as they use their knowledge to educate the public.

On top of transparency when it comes to the public, Garman said she wants to create a closer relationship and dialogue between the bench and the bar.

She asked attorneys and bar associations to be more involved in the court’s rule-making process by discussing proposed changes and providing feedback. She also urged attendants to serve on Supreme Court committees when asked and to not only serve, but to make “a real commitment of time and effort.”

In remarks before Garman spoke, the leaders of the four bar groups that hosted Wednesday’s luncheon offered their assistance to help the new chief justice in any way they could.

Steven Pflaum, vice president of the Appellate Lawyers Association, said that unlike the U.S. Supreme Court’s leaders, who are typically remembered for landmark decisions made during their reign, chief justices of the Illinois Supreme Court are often known for their administrative and policy initiatives.

Because of that, he said, bar associations can play a “unique and valuable role” in helping the high court move forward with changes to its rules, as well with the efforts of its various commissions and committees.

“We pledge our full support in helping you,” Pflaum said.

Chicago Bar Association President J. Timothy Eaton agreed and said his group looks forward to working with Garman, who he referred to as “truly extraordinary” and “a trailblazer,” as well her colleagues.

Paula Holderman, president of the Illinois State Bar Association, and Michelle Kohut, president of the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois, as well as former Illinois Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Miller also gave brief remarks at Wednesday’s luncheon.

Several of Garman’s colleagues on the high court attended the event, along with numerous distinguished guests including Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans, Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, among others.

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