QA with Judge LeChien: 'Behind' the scenes

Ann Knef Sep. 22, 2005, 7:59am

Judge LeChien

Circuit Judge Robert LeChien is a 1976 graduate of the Southern Illinois University School of Law. He worked as a prosecutor in St. Clair County from 1976 to 1980.

In 1980, he joined his brother, Tom LeChien, at LeChien & Associates in Belleville in the general practice of law.

He represented injured people and handled criminal and consumer cases.

In 1985, LeChien opened the Consumer Law Center.

He was appointed associate judge in 1987. In 1998, he ran unopposed as a Democrat and won circuit judgeship. He was retained in the general election of 2004.

He has three children: Keith, a January 2006 doctoral candidate in electrical engineering at University of Missouri, Columbia; Jay, a graduate student in landscape architecture at the University of Illinois, Champaign; and Lori, a freshman poetry major at Columbia College in Chicago.

Politics keep elections out of shadows

Q: Would judicial elections in Illinois be better for the public if they were not partisan? Explain.

A: The election of supreme, appellate and circuit judges is controlled by Article VI of the Constitution of the State of Illinois. A change to non-partisan elections would require an amendment of the state constitution that requires judicial candidates to be nominated at primary elections.

The burden of proof as to whether the public good would be advanced by such an amendment is clearly on those who propose the change.

My political sense tells me that given the millions of dollars spent on our last supreme court race, that judicial elections at every level will increase in expense, hostility and misinformation.

The glacial love loss between the plaintiffs’ advocates and the business and insurance advocates will not melt away if judicial candidates drop their party affiliation.

If judicial candidates do not belong to political parties, judicial campaign support will evolve into shadowy and obscure coalitions of the opposing forces.

Cut free from the roots of political organization and support, fund-raising at even the lowest elected office would become the obsession of the judicial campaign committee.

At the very least, it is unlikely that a non-partisan election campaign would be more informative, less expensive and less hostile then what we experienced in Southern Illinois in 2004.

Q: Do you believe there should be minimal experience requirements for one seeking election as a circuit, appellate or supreme court judge?

A: While serious legal experience and broad exposure to people and their legal problems are necessary to be a well-rounded judicial thinker, it is problematic to adopt a formula for “experience” that would necessarily exclude candidates currently eligible under the state constitution.

The public is perfectly capable of deciding what they want in their judges. Unfortunately, there are well-financed political interests that are capable of mustering a battering ram of programmed misinformation that can mislead the voting public about any given candidate.

The Record biased?

Q: If local press is doing an inadequate job of covering local courts, what would you recommend the media do better?

A: Not surprisingly given your ownership, the bias of this publication in favor of the political interests of the Chamber of Commerce is barefaced.

Your headlines, features and editorial contributions are designed to make Madison and St. Clair Counties appear to be full of freaks of frivolous litigation that are in large part attended to by complicit business-hating judicial activists.

You forget that normal men and women populate the corridors and chambers of our courthouses. The reform sources you often quote--American Tort Reform Association, the Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform and the Illinois Civil Justice League-- are pressure groups designed to provide you with sourced talking points.

Unlike some in the media, you do not pretend to be fair and balanced. I would not expect your bias to change. Regardless, I appreciate access in this forum to express my views uncensored and free of discussion of specific cases.

Q: Is venue reform, as proposed by legal reform advocates, necessary in Illinois?

A: I assume when you refer to “legal reform advocates” you mean the American Tort Reform Association. The American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) describes itself as “a broad based, bipartisan coalition of more than 300 businesses, corporations, municipalities, associations, and professional firms who support civil justice reform.”

In its 2004 report on “Judicial Hellholes,” ATRA offers a solution to plaintiffs’ free choice of venue. The report states: “Fair venue reform would require plaintiffs’ lawyers to file cases where the plaintiffs live, where they were injured or where the defendant’s principal place of business is located.” (p. 41).

A recent Illinois Supreme Court case has made it very clear that venue disputes must be resolved in favor of the venue where the plaintiffs live or where the tort occurred. It seems that existing Illinois law is consistent with the legal reform advocated by ATRA in its 2004 Report. In addition, the Illinois Civil Justice League applauds the Supreme Court’s approach in its online publication. (See

Q: Is improper venue a problem in St. Clair County?

A: No. As noted above, the Illinois Supreme Court has made a trial judge’s job in resolving venue disputes much easier than it was in the past.

In addition, St. Clair County is not troubled by a large volume of cases where venue disputes have been resolved by keeping the case in our county.

Q: What types of cases do you handle?

A: I handle civil litigation involving disputes over $50,000. Most of my cases involve either personal injury claims or business disputes.

'Behind' the scenes

Q: Can you provide a courtroom anecdote in which you have been either uplifted, humbled, surprised or saddened?

A: A few years ago, I was presiding at a civil jury trial that was well into its second week. I was at work in a courtroom I had never used before. The chair behind the bench had roller balls that glided over a plexiglas chairmat.

One morning the court room was well-attended including several doctors who were expert witnesses in the case. As I installed myself on the chair I leaned forward and the chair shot out from under my behind.

I was a “4X” kind of guy at the time and hit the floor with considerable spectacle. While on the floor I quickly assessed my situation and reflected on the appropriate way to regain composure and decorum. I considered and rejected the Pee Wee Herman, “I meant to do that” approach. I settled on acting like I was invisible during my stunt.

This occasion combined all ingredients of your question. I was uplifted from my chair, surprised by the floor and humbled by the fall to my knees.

I was also saddened at learning that I had split the seat of my pants. Undaunted, I achieved a fraction of pay back by promptly banishing the chairmat from the courtroom. Finally, I was relieved that we have robes to wear, although I don’t think you’re supposed to wear it to your car.

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