In eight weeks St. Clair County voters will decide whether to loosen a decades-old Democratic grip in the 20th Judicial Circuit.
On Nov. 7, O'Fallon attorney Paul Evans, a Republican, faces incumbent Lloyd Cueto, a Democrat, in an unusual election for circuit judge.
Cueto, a Belleville Democrat, has served two consecutive six-year terms as circuit judge. He decided not to run for retention in December and opted instead to run for election to the same position. To be retained, he would have needed a 60 percent "yes" vote, but running in an open race he faces a less daunting challenge--needing only one more vote than Evans.
The manuever has been called unconstitutional by a legal ethics expert. "He can't run for election," said Leonard Gross, a law professor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. "It's not valid pursuant to the Illinois Constitution."
But so far Cueto's election bid has not been challenged. According to the State Board of Elections, on Friday Cueto's name was certified to appear on the November ballot.
Until recently, Cueto had not completed a judicial candidate questionnaire posed by the Illinois Civil Justice League. Last week he responded to the survey answering a range of questions addressing issues such as judicial activism and "caps" on damages.
Following is an unedited sample of questions and how candidates Evans and Cueto answered. (To view the complete survey, visit the website: illinoisjudges.net).
Question: In close cases, judges (particularly appellate judges) often have choices to make as to the direction in which they believe the law should go. In those circumstances, some of the greatest judges have been activists, others have practiced restraint, and others have followed no particular philosophy about the place of the judiciary in our system of separate branches sharing power. Which of these approaches/philosophies best captures your views of the proper role of judges in society?
Evans: I believe that judges best fulfill their role (acknowledging that their role is different between circuit judges and those on the higher courts) when they restrain from judicial activism. I do not wish to be overly simplistic, but the Legislature has the assigned role of law maker, not the judicial branch. At the circuit level, I believe it is the judge's role to interpret the law and evidence in the case at hand, with the judge keeping in mind established case law. However, it is the duty of each judge to render justice, and there may be the rare case of particularly egregious facts or conduct which, in order for justice to be rendered, a strong ruling is required.
Judges should not abdicate their duty from taking clear and strong stances - if indeed such a ruling is truly called for.
On an appellate level, where judges are more involved with the shaping of the future of the law, I believe judges should keep in mind core American values and the values of the community. This is not to say that local customs always trump the needs of justice in every case, but radical departures from existing law should occur based upon extreme facts, and not just upon then politically popular current sentiments, or upon the individual beliefs of a judge.
Cueto: I am a circuit judge. My approach/philosophy is to be fair, impartial, and to follow the law. A circuit judge does not (or at least should not), make law. A circuit judge should do his/her best to follow the precedents from the appellate/supreme courts.
Question: Are there civil litigation reforms that you would like to see enacted to remedy particular problems that you have detected, either as a practicing lawyer or as a sitting judge? Are there reforms that would benefit the civil justice system? What needs to be changed? Should the enactment of any such changes be the province of the legislature, the Supreme Court or by Constitutional amendment?
Cueto: It is difficult to make a general statement about "reform." Most reforms do come from the legislature, Supreme Court and very rarely a Constitutional Amendment. However Circuit Courts do make reforms and St. Clair County has been at the forefront of such reforms. Here is a sampling of just a few of the judiciary's accomplishments in that regard:
1. Mandatory Arbitration: The judiciary has totally revamped the Mandatory Arbitration System to increase the jurisdictional limits from $20,000 to $50,000. This should reduce courthouse congestion but more importantly be a much less expensive, faster and user friendly system for this large category of cases.
2. Pooling of judges for the Major Civil Docket. Because all cases now go into a "pool" all cases are considered first out. This in turn assures the attorneys of a trial date and moves the dockets.
3. Juror Call In System: The Judiciary has implemented a jury call in system that is aimed at promoting juror convenience, eliminate overcrowding at the courthouse and save substantial juror expenses. The saving has allowed us to pay for the system in less than six months time.
4. Judicial Access to Internet and Westlaw Research System: The judiciary can now do all of their legal research from their chambers and we were also able to negotiate the same access for both the Public Defender's Office and the States Attorney's Office.
5. Limiting motions for substitution of judges in class action cases.
6. Increased the jurisdictional limits in small claim cases from $2,500 to $5,000. These small but important cases are now much less expensive to litigate.
Evans: In some of the matters that I have encountered as a lawyer, I believe my issues of concern have come more from the application of the law or procedure in that situation, as compared to the actual law itself. If problems are uniformly occurring throughout every county and court, that suggests changes are needed. If problems are occurring in only a few isolated locations, and not in the majority of counties or courts, I suspect the answer lies in examining how the particular law in question is being implemented in a particular venue, as compared to an actual problem with the law itself.
The creation and amendment of our laws comes both from the courts in interpreting the laws, creating procedures, and creating the body of the common law; and also from the Legislature. Again, this is a balancing test. The Legislature, if not satisfied with developing court interpretations, may, subject to federal and state constitutions, enact laws changing the courts decisions. Similarly, if the legislature passes laws that are lacking in clarity, it is up to the courts to interpret those laws.
Question: Do you believe the Illinois Constitution precludes legislative establishment of limitations on civil damages? Are there or should there be distinctions among economic, non-economic and punitive damages?
Evans: It has been held by our Supreme Court that the Constitution does indeed preclude such limitations. This will continue to be the law unless or until a differently constituted Supreme Court rules differently, or sufficient legislative will is found to amend the Constitution.
I believe there are distinctions between the three types of referenced damages, as is plain from the pattern jury instructions. Once again, I focus my attention on whether there is a problem with the award of these damages uniformly throughout the court systems of Illinois, or if they tend to occur only in a few areas. I believe this is an area where focus needs to be placed upon the individual judge and the damages that are ordered by the individual judge (or found by a jury under that judge), as compared to the system as a whole.
Cueto: A circuit judge's personal opinions on the Illinois Constitution are not relevant, except in the very rare "first impression" cases. My job as a circuit judge is to follow the law as the Supreme Court explains the law.
The Illinois Supreme Court has interpreted the Illinois Constitution to preclude legislative caps on most types of compensatory damages. Punitive damages are disfavored, and are in fact limited by both the Illinois and U.S. Supreme Courts.