QA: Publish judges' opinions, says St. Clair County Judge Stephen Rice

Ann Knef Oct. 6, 2005, 6:53am

St. Clair County Associate Judge Stephen Rice

St. Clair County Associate Judge Stephen Rice is a lifelong St. Clair County resident. He received his undergraduate degree from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and juris doctorate degree from St. Louis University School of Law in 1976.

Before becoming an associate judge in 1999, he handled civil, family and municipal matters in private practice. He presides over a family law docket.

Rice and his wife, Margie, have three daughters.

Q: If the judiciary is under attack, as some in positions of leadership believe, what should be done, and, by whom?

A: We all need to acknowledge that constructive criticism is a valuable and necessary process to continually improve and modernize any system.

By “attacks,” I assume you are referring to criticisms designed to further some political, partisan or special interest goals. Various organizations from both ends of the political spectrum attack the legal system in general, and the judiciary in particular to further their political, partisan interests.

While some “attacks” can lead to constructive reassessment, there is no question that there are some partisan attempts to mislead the public through misinformation published in the various media concerning the judiciary and the judicial system. Some misinformation arises from innocent misunderstanding or misperception, but some of it is clearly and intentionally done without regard to the true state of things and without regard to the actual facts of the particular subject of the attack.

Of course, this is a time honored tradition, and those in the public eye have to be thick-skinned enough to grin and bear it. What is disturbing about attacks on the judiciary is that they have become more bitter and more strident in recent years and much of the criticism is based on a misperception or misinterpretation of the role of the judiciary and the power of judges, particularly at the trial level of the judiciary.

There seems to be a perception that a judge’s power and discretion is unfettered to the point of arbitrariness - as if it were used as a tool to attack, improperly or unfairly, some specific group or segment of society. Little or no attempt is made to explain the limits placed on judges by the law itself, statutory and case precedent, and state and federal constitutions.

You ask who should do what. Judges and all others in the public eye, can continue to ask the media to not only report matters fairly and accurately, but to explicitly separate factual reporting and editorializing, so that opinion, partisan or not, is clearly labeled as such.

Judges can and should accept greater responsibility in helping inform the public about the role of judges and the judiciary in our system of government. I believe judges should make themselves available to speak to groups and organizations. I especially would like to talk with junior and senior high school classes. I think it would help them to better understand what they learn in Civics.

I have daughters in high school and college and enjoy talking to young people. We should make a greater effort to work with the media to inform the public.

There are caveats that must be taken into consideration. Judges, more so than any other public officials, are restricted in what they may say in public or to the media by ethical rules of conduct that cannot be adequately explained in brief.

We are bound by ethics, for instance, to not discuss pending matters. Other rules limit how we may address our opinions on controversial matters that may arise from time to time. In short judges do not enjoy the same freedom of expression that most Americans enjoy. It is a necessary and proper limitation in light of the duties we have.

Another caveat is that it also would be unfair to then criticize judges for seeking to inform the public or address criticism.

Q: What are some of your thoughts regarding Judge Roberts’ testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee? Did his performance merit five “no” votes, in your opinion?

A: I was only able to watch a portion of Judge Roberts' testimony, and I have read reports on his background. From what I can gather he is intelligent and well trained in the law, although he has had rather brief experience as a judge. He has repeatedly stated that he has no “agenda,” political or otherwise, and that he is not an “ideologue.”

He has indicated that he firmly believes in giving great weight to judicial precedent, meaning that he is more likely to follow prior judicial decisions than to radically depart from them. I am inclined to take him at his word.

He certainly does not appear to be a “radical” in the sense of departing wildly from mainstream views, and I am optimistic that he will serve well.

The appointment of federal judges is a clear example of how politics plays a part in the selection of judges regardless of the system of selection. It is often suggested that some process of selecting judges, other than through public elections, would somehow remove politics from the process.

Politics is an unavoidable component. The questioning of Judge Roberts is a necessary part of the process. Both political parties should have the opportunity to ask difficult questions. I also believe that Judge Roberts correctly declined to answer certain questions on the basis of the same ethical rules binding all judges as I above indicated.

I did not follow the individual committee members reasoning with regard to their vote. I have no opinion as to the merit of their votes. There is a long history of senators of both parties voting against candidates along party or philosophical lines.

Q: How do you view judges-state and federal-who are considered to be so-called “activists?” Are there actions ever justified?

A: As I suggested above, trial judges have little chance to be “activists” in any sense of that word. Appellate courts review virtually all cases where there is controversy. Anything done by a trial judge is at least potentially subject to review by an appellate court, and even appellate judges’ discretion is limited by the review of the state supreme court.

The United States Supreme Court is the final limit on the discretion of lower court judges. Another limit on the power of a judge is the Judicial Inquiry Board that reviews and disciplines judicial conduct. That board includes citizens from the business community

Q: What courthouse information is underreported?

A: Most courthouse events are reported with less depth than I would like. This is largely by necessity. In depth reports require much effort on the part of not just the media, but on the part of the public.

I pick up the paper and have time to only scan the news and read only the stories of interest to me. It is a cliché that we live in the information age and deluged by it. Sound bytes are an inevitable consequence. When I say that I think courthouse information should be reported more in depth, it is not so much a criticism as a regretful recognition of the limits on the media.

One criticism that even casual observers note is the obvious editorializing by the editor changing the tone or impact of a story by the reporter.

It is particularly obvious where the headline of a report is radically different from the facts stated in the article. I would like to see a fuller explanation of how results are reached in the courthouse.

For instance, most judges take great care in explaining their decisions in the rulings they make. While a judge cannot comment publicly on pending matters or recent rulings, the written opinion or ruling of the judge can be published, and, from the standpoint of the judge, may be the only way that that judge can communicate to the public.

Q: Do you believe the Karmeier v. Maag Illinois Supreme Court race sets a standard for future contested judicial races in terms of cost and tone?

A: I know and respect both gentlemen who ran for office. Anyone who looks at the cost of that election and not have concerns, must be in the business of selling newspapers or television time.

Seriously, the cost of elections, in general, is a subject of concern. It is an unfortunate fact of political life. I do not presume to know the answer. It would appear to me, as an observer, that every previous attempt to limit the flow and power of money in elections has failed, if not exacerbated the problem.

I am confident that both candidates regret the tone the campaign took. Much of the tone of elections results from the media blitzes by the various partisan organizations that are trying to influence the election.

Elections historically run a spectrum in tone and swing in tone depending on the times and the issues involved. It remains to be seen whether a standard for “tone” has been set for the foreseeable future.

Q: What types of cases do you handle?

A: At the present time I am serving as a family law judge. I handle the full range of issues that arise in family court. Those duties include deciding all child related issues - custody, visitation, child support and the like.

I am called upon to determine division of property and spousal support. Some of the toughest cases to handle are child custody and removal, the question of whether or not to allow the custodial spouse to move to a different state with the child or children. Such cases involve high emotions and I often find myself having to decide between two very good and loving parents.

Q: Describe a remarkable or memorable courtroom experience.

A: My second year as judge I was sitting in traffic court. A fellow was charged with speeding and failure to wear a seat belt. He asked for a bench trial.

After hearing the evidence, I found him not guilty of the seat belt violation believing his testimony that he took off the belt before the officer approached his vehicle, but found him guilty of speeding.

I believe it was his first speeding charge and I was intending to fine him $75 and place him on suspension. Before I could say that, he became irate in the crowded court room and started loudly cursing me and the judicial system.

He abruptly left the court room with me ordering him to come back. I directed the bailiff to retrieve him. Apparently the bailiff was joined by other bailiffs that had to physically drag him eventually back into the court room.

He continued to struggle in the area in front of my bench. Several police and sheriff’s deputies who happened to be in court on other cases had to enter the fray. The defendant continued to struggle with at least five officers trying to restrain him.

The struggle took on the appearance of a rugby scrum with the pile moving from one side of the room to the other, nearly knocking over the waist high wall separating the jury box.

Finally the pile collapsed with everyone falling to the floor, and the defendant was subdued. My main concern was making sure no one, particularly the officers, were hurt. I ordered the defendant to be taken to a holding cell down the hall to cool down.

After about 40 minutes, I had the defendant brought back to give him a chance to apologize and to proceed to sentencing on the speeding ticket. He immediately resumed his cursing and abusive language. I was not particularly concerned about what he thought of me, but he acted like a complete idiot. I found him in contempt of court, and sentenced him to 30 days in jail.

I ordered his return seven days later. While he still failed to apologize, he grudgingly acknowledged that his actions were excessive and had placed others in harm’s way. In less abusive language he still indicated his low opinion of the fairness of my court room. I ordered his immediate release.

I believe I then sentenced him to the same sentence I had intended from the beginning.

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