November 2016 • Volume 104 • Number 11 • Page 12
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There's a growing amount of sophisticated information about judges for voters and practitioners. But you still can't beat insights from fellow lawyers.
There are many reasons why someone might want to research judges. Lawyers might want to learn how a judge rules or runs the courtroom to gain a tactical advantage in litigation - or to decide whether to file a motion for substitution of judge before any substantive rulings are made. (As this article went to press, Bloomberg Law launched its Litigation Analytics service, which provides stats about judges' rulings.) Voters might want to research a judge's background before election day to make an informed choice at the polling place. Attorneys seeking to fill a vacancy in one of Illinois' circuit courts might want to learn more about, and get in contact with, the judges who will select the new jurist. But what resources exist for these purposes?
There are familiar legal research tools like Westlaw, Lexis, or Fastcase for reading published opinions. While this might be useful for learning about federal judges, where even trial courts have published opinions, it is less so for learning about state judges.
In Illinois, it can be difficult to find written opinions from trial court judges. Many simply rule from the bench. The written opinions that exist aren't published in case reporters. Finding those opinions requires knowing that they exist and pulling them directly from the case file. Until there is meaningful digital access to case files across the state, that can be a difficult or time-consuming task.
Judicial evaluations and more
For those seeking to cast a better-informed vote, some state and local bar associations provide ratings guides. For example, the Illinois State Bar Association, the Chicago Bar Association, the Cook County Bar Association, and the Women's Bar Association of Illinois publish their judicial recommendations. ISBA polls and evaluations are at https://www.isba.org/judicialevaluations.
Illinois has been electing its judges since 1848. Candidates must declare their membership in a political party and then actively seek its endorsement. Given that judicial candidates are significantly limited in how they can campaign, gaining the endorsement of a bar association can be an important step towards election or retention.
The Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law has published a website that contains biographical and professional data for all of the judges sitting on the bench in 2015. It is located at http://illinoisjudges.law.northwestern.edu/. The site has gathered data from several sources including the Illinois Supreme Court website, Sullivan's Judicial Profiles, individual judges' websites, and other sources.
It includes the educational background and date of bar admission for each judge, the counties in which they serve, the population of those counties, political party, dates of election and retention, and legal experience. While this is a unique and helpful resource, it does not provide much information about a judge's past rulings or courtroom practices. For that information, most people are on their own. Some judges publish their standing orders online, but many do not.
People who want to learn about federal judges have access to more resources, but for those without access to a proprietary legal research provider the information is scattered. The Federal Judicial Center maintains a biographical directory of federal judges, which includes the biographies of judges who have served in the federal judiciary since 1789. It is located at http://www.fjc.gov/history/home.nsf/page/index.html . But it doesn't provide much insight into a judge's style or how a particular judge rules on certain issues.
For federal judges, there is some limited information available in the Congressional Record, but only for judges appointed after July 1985. Searching paper volumes of the Record can be an arduous task, and those without access to an online legal research tool might not want to spend the time. After all, the only information there is statements made to the Senate during the confirmation process.
A relatively new online resource, Ravel Law, available at http://www.ravellaw.com, is an online search tool that allows practitioners to search judges, visualizing their opinions and how they relate to other cases and statutes. Ravel Law is a private product born out of Stanford University's Law School, Computer Science Department, and Institute of Design, with support from Stanford's Center for Legal Informatics. The interface is clean and slick, and the for-fee elite service has a wealth of information about how judges rule on cases and motions, which opinions they cite, and how they apply the law.
But it is lacking one element that is of interest to Illinois attorneys - information about circuit court judges. Because Ravel draws largely from published opinions, those seeking information about a specific judge in the Circuit Court of Cook County or elsewhere in the state will find that there isn't much information to gain. A specific judge will only appear in search results if there is an appellate opinion based on a ruling from the circuit court.
Ultimately, those seeking information about state judges will find that there is no one-stop clearinghouse for that data. At the end of the day, we are largely left with one primary source of information about judges - the experience of others. ISBA email discussion groups and other industry group email lists may still be one of the best ways to get insight into judges from several practitioners at once.