IJA President Wexstten
Three months into his one-year term, Illinois Judges Association President James Wexstten is in a race against time as he crusades for a decades-old concept--full funding of state trial courts.
Wexstten, a judge in the 2nd Judicial Circuit in Mount Vernon, is proposing a revenue-neutral method of redistributing locally collected fees so that people living in poorer counties are equally served in their local courts.
"This is not a new concept," Wexstten said, explaining that the state's unified court system established by constitution in 1970 "anticipated, but never fully accomplished" the goal of full funding.
"The judiciary is a third and co-equal branch of the government. The executive branch is fully funded, the legislative branch is fully funded," said Wexstten. "We’re not a program, we’re not a committee. We're the Third Branch of government.”
Wexstten has asked the Illinois State Bar Association to conduct an analysis of his proposal by studying the fiscal impact of such a plan in three counties in the Fifth District.
"Most people’s experience is with the trial court," said Wexstten. "The operation of courts is dependent on the ability and will of counties to fund them. There is no uniformity among court budgets and that is a problem.
"In a democracy (people) should have equal protection under the law," he added. "It should not matter where you live. It should be equal and equitable."
Wexstten doesn't believe the state's 102 county prosecutors should make decisions based on their budgets.
"Those (court) services should not be dependent on the balances of county coffers," he said.
DNA testing, for instance, should be available equally in Illinois, said Wexstten.
"The public needs to be protected from the guilty and the innocent need to be set free."
An analysis he conducted several years ago based on population and county budget figures in 2000 made Wexstten's point clear on funding disparities.
By example, per capita court funding in DuPage County--the state's richest--was $2.20.
Among the poorest, Hardin County's per capita spending was $8.82.
Madison County fell in middle at $4.59 per capita.
During his tenure, Wexstten also is urging circuit judges to raise their public profiles, to counteract what he calls an "attack" of the judiciary.
“So the people of a community can have confidence in their judiciary," he said. "To show their honesty and integrity.”
“I believe that has happened in the past, and it is happening better right now.”
Personal views: Politics and reform
Wexstten would like to see certain reforms in the election of judges.
“Most Illinoisans still want to elect their judges,” he said. “Seventy-eight percent of them. But not have them running as a Democrat or a Republican.
“When we run for retention we run non-partisan.
"There's just something unseemly about a judge in partisan politics."
Wexstten believes there ought to be minimum qualifications to run for election as a circuit judge, and merit standards for retention.
"I would recommend some level of experience …five-six years as a practicing attorney," he said.
As for retention, he believes a panel of experts could weed out bad judges.
"A panel of lawyers, business people, common citizens determine how well the candidate measures up on independence, decision time, courteousness, reversals, complaints," he said.
The panel would recommend whether a judge was ballot-worthy.