It is with a great sense of humility that I begin my year as the 136th president of the Illinois State Bar Association. In receiving the gavel from John Locallo – who has been an outstanding president and could not have been more supportive as I transitioned into this office – I am ever mindful of the ISBA’s long and significant history of being the preeminent statewide voice of the legal profession in Illinois. I am grateful for the opportunity you have given me to lead this organization.
Throughout our Association’s history, our membership and indeed all citizens of this state have benefited from, and depended upon, ISBA efforts to sustain the core values of our profession, such as the attorney-client privilege, the independence of the judiciary, and the rule of law. This has not always been easy – there have been many challenges to these values – but with the leadership of our supreme court and the help of brother and sister organizations, the ISBA has fought to preserve them, and they continue to be central to our profession’s ability to meet legal needs.
This mission – making sure our profession can continue to meet legal needs – is the lens through which we should view all challenges facing our profession. First and foremost, our attention to achieving this mission is a very important reason why the ISBA is so relevant to its 33,000 members.
We have much to celebrate as a profession. Lawyers continue to be a critical part of the fabric of their communities. They are involved at every level of government and play a vital role in every significant public discourse. But we must be mindful that the members of our profession also now face a series of challenges that – at least in combination – may be unique in history. We will direct the Association’s attention to at least some of these challenges in the coming year.
Threat to fair and impartial courts
The ongoing weakened economy has only exacerbated the funding crisis facing our courts – historically, the primary forum of our justice system. The national crisis in this area has been well documented and threatens access to the courts. The current instability is a long-term challenge to the viability of this co-equal branch of our government so crucial to the provision of legal service.
As such, the ISBA must take a leadership role in calling attention to this problem and to proposing and achieving solutions. Accordingly, I have appointed a special committee to be co-chaired by Kane County Judge Patricia P. Golden and fifth district Justice James M. Wexstten. The group’s mission will be to coordinate ISBA efforts to identify and publicize threats to fair and impartial courts from lack of funding and to consider measures to address this problem.
Review of standards governing judicial disqualification
Our nation’s courts are also threatened by the role of politics in the way we select judges. Special interest spending is increasing, raising an issue of bias in favor of those who contribute.
The ISBA has long been on record supporting merit selection of judges. However, until our state has the political will to adopt this alternative form of judicial selection, we should look at other ways to advance the public’s trust in the fairness and impartiality of our courts and judiciary. We must have a judicial system that inspires client confidence.
In 2011, the American Bar Association House of Delegates adopted a resolution which urged states to establish clearly articulated procedures for (A) judicial disqualification determinations and (B) prompt review by another judge or tribunal, or as otherwise provided by law or rule of court, of denials of requests to disqualify a judge. This resolution also urged – for states in which judges are subject to elections of any kind – the adoption of (A) disclosure requirements for litigants and lawyers who have provided, directly or indirectly, campaign support in an election involving a judge before whom they are appearing, and (B) guidelines for judges concerning disclosure and disqualification obligations regarding campaign contributions.
While the ABA continues to look at appropriate modifications to the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, I have appointed a special committee to review this issue, co-chaired by retired first district Justice Gino L. DiVito and the current chair of the ISBA/IJA/CBA Judicial Ethics Committee, Warren Lupel. Gino’s and Warren’s committee has been assigned the following tasks: (A) consider judicial disqualification standards in Illinois and, in particular, the interrelationship between 735 ILCS 5/2-1001(a)(3), Supreme Court Rule 63 (3)(C), the U.S. Supreme Court case of Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., Inc. case, and our supreme court’s recent decision In re Marriage of John O’Brien; (B) evaluate how to clarify and improve such standards and related procedures in a manner that enhances public confidence in our judicial system; and (C) report its findings and recommendations.
Legal education debt crisis
As the practice of law is evolving, the core membership of the ISBA – lawyers in firms of 10 or fewer – will have a progressively more difficult time hiring new lawyers and therefore meeting legal needs. This is a direct result of the higher cost of legal education (and corresponding new lawyer debt), leading to salary and benefit needs that cannot easily be met by smaller firms. Since these firms currently provide a large percentage of the legal services to the citizens of this state, the strain on their ability to do so raises significant public policy issues.
I am mindful that this is a national issue requiring a national solution. However, because relatively little of the national discussion has been devoted to the impact of this problem on the delivery of legal service, there is a role for the state bar associations, which are closest to day-to-day practitioners. Accordingly, I have appointed a special committee to be co-chaired by second district Justice Ann B. Jorgensen and Granite City attorney and former ISBA Treasurer Dennis J. Orsey to study the impact of this crisis on the future delivery of legal services, making a record on the subject to inform the greater national discussion.
The challenges we face are real, but so are the opportunities. Our organization benefits from talented volunteers (including my fellow officers, Paula H. Holderman, Richard D. Felice, and Umberto S. Davi), a staff that is second to none, and a history of visionary leaders who have laid a very strong foundation.
As we start the year, I want to particularly thank the lawyers of my law firm, Webber & Thies, P.C., who have always encouraged and supported my bar service. I also want to thank my immediate and extended family, which continues to inspire me as this endeavor begins. Incidentally, my wife, Terry, will be playing a significant role this year by, among other things, chairing a steering committee coordinating a statewide food drive we are calling Lawyers Feeding Illinois – you will learn more about this in coming months!