Illinois Bar Journal

October 2019Volume 107Number 10Page 10

Thank you for viewing this Illinois Bar Journal article. Please join the ISBA to access all of our IBJ articles and archives.


Try Me a River

Rural law and johnboat rides on the Illinois River.

From left to right: Curt Peters, Steven Margherio, and Calhoun County Public Defender Scott Schultz docking near Hardin, Illinois, on June 11.
From left to right: Curt Peters, Steven Margherio, and Calhoun County Public Defender Scott Schultz docking near Hardin, Illinois, on June 11.

On Tuesday, June 11, the Calhoun County courthouse in Hardin was a hard place to reach. The town sits low on the west side of the Illinois River, where, days earlier, levees were breached, bridges were closed, and ferries were sidelined as persistent rains flooded thousands of acres in the area.

While plans were in the works at Hardin to temporarily hold court business on the east side of the Illinois River in drier Jerseyville, that Tuesday the courthouse in Hardin, just a block away from the river, was forced to make do: Defendants were in custody, preliminary hearings were set, and lives were in the balance.

“From a criminal procedure standpoint, these are time-sensitive matters,” says Scott Schultz, Calhoun County’s public defender.

“We had cases that [Schultz] was representing,” says Calhoun County Circuit Clerk Yvonne Macauley. “It was at a point that we had to do something. We called him: ‘We’re going to have cases.’”

Still, a major challenge loomed: how to get Schultz, who lives in St. Louis and whose office is based in Jerseyville east of the Illinois River, to Hardin.

Ordinarily, a drive from Jerseyville to Hardin takes 25 minutes. But with flooding that rivaled the historic, disastrous highwaters of 1993, the trip was at least a five-hour round trip that required crossing the Illinois River many miles north and wending down again through drier back roads on the Calhoun County side.

There was another solution—one that would prove memorable for Schultz. Macauley arranged for a local resident (coincidentally, the next-door neighbor of Calhoun County State’s Attorney Richard Ringhausen) to meet Schultz on the Jerseyville side on a flat-bottomed johnboat. Schultz agreed, even if he wasn’t quite sure what this would entail. He had a much clearer idea when the boat motored up to a makeshift dock on the east side of the river, where Schultz, dressed in a suit and carrying his laptop, saw an empty lawn chair onboard waiting for him.

“Look, I am adventurous,” Schultz recalls. “I grew up as a rural kid—dirt bikes, camping, and all that. But the thing that really shocked me as we were flying across the flooded fields—the video I took from my phone makes it look like the boat was going 100 miles per hour—were tops of trees thwacking against the bottom of the johnboat. I showed the video to my wife. ‘I thought I married a lawyer,’ she says. ‘You’re sitting on lawn chairs in flat boats? This is dangerous.’ But I thought it was a lot of fun.” The boat ride took a mere 15 minutes.

Ringhausen, who was waiting, camera in hand, on the Hardin side of the Illinois River for Schultz to arrive, admitted the alternative mode of transportation wasn’t entirely risk free.

“As state’s attorney, I was mildly concerned with the potential liability to the county involved in transporting our public defender across the river,” Ringhausen explains. “But most of the criminal and traffic defendants are represented by attorneys from out of county, almost all of whom would have had to cross the Illinois River.” (Ringhausen says Calhoun County, among the least populated in Illinois, has just two resident attorneys.)

Fortunately, Schultz only needed to take the johnboat to Hardin once. By July, Jerseyville was hosting Calhoun court business on a temporary basis. Soon after, river levels fell, nearby ferries and bridges reopened, and direct routes to Hardin became accessible again.

While Schultz says this particular experience isn’t one he’s likely to repeat, it’s just a day in the life of practicing law in rural southwestern Illinois.

“Maybe I’m too ingrained to not make a big deal of it,” says Schultz, who grew up in Jerseyville. “But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Pete Sherman is Managing Editor of the Illinois Bar Journal.

Login to post comments