Illinois lawmakers clash with state Supreme Court over bias training for judges

The Judicial Quality Act passed out of a state Senate committee Wednesday, despite opposition from the Illinois Supreme Court.

Empty courtroom with the seal of the Illinois SUpreme Court

Courtesty of the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts

A still of the Illinois Supreme Court from a video about the Illinois Judicial College.

A bill in the Illinois Senate would require judges in the state to attend more training about issues like trauma, racial bias, and cultural competency.

The Judicial Quality Act, which was introduced by Sen. Omar Aquino (D-Chicago), passed the Senate executive committee Wednesday by a vote of 11-6, despite opposition from the Illinois Supreme Court.

The bill’s backers say the current training for Illinois judges – 30 hours every two years – is insufficient, and that judges need more focused education on topics like domestic violence, child abuse, racial bias in sentencing, the impact of trauma on brain development, and the LGBTQIA community.

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Brian Harrington said he has seen how a lack of cultural competency among judges can affect how they treat people in their courtrooms. Harrington, who works for Chicago Votes, the nonprofit civic education organization that is behind the bill, said he has heard judges and attorneys tell defendants in the courtroom to cut their locs or cover their tattoos to look more “presentable.”

“For me, there’s underlying racism in that because you see danger or you see a negative undertone with the way that someone looks, which turns a blind eye to who this individual is,” said Harrington, who was incarcerated for 13 years before he was released last year.

The Illinois Supreme Court, which oversees training for judges and other court personnel through the Illinois Judicial College, opposes the Judicial Quality Act.

“The educational opportunities for Illinois judges are among the very best in the nation,” Chief Justice Anne M. Burke said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. “[The Judicial College] continues to develop excellent and diverse programs and I am very proud of how the Judicial Branch pivoted during COVID to move educational programming from in-person conferences to our eLearning portal.”

A spokesperson for Aquino, the bill’s sponsor, said he planned to meet with the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts about their opposition to the bill before bringing it to a vote in the full Senate. The bill has the support of Senate President Don Harmon, according to a spokesman.

Most of the current training for Illinois judges takes place at the biennial Judicial Education Conference, according to the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts. Newly elected and appointed judges are also required to participate in a five-day seminar on topics such as courtroom management, ethics, and access to justice.

The Judicial Quality Act would require the courts to hold trainings quarterly and mandate that they include “hearing live testimony from people, specifically lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming individuals,” who have been sentenced to 20 or more years in prison or detained pretrial.

For Harrington, that part of the bill is about ensuring that judges, especially those in criminal court, hear from the people whom their decisions affect.

“For too many years, bills have been passed without the people actually taken into full consideration,” he said. “For me, it’s like that saying, ‘Those who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution.’”

State Sen. Jason Barickman (R-Bloomington), one of six senators who voted against the bill Wednesday, asked what was wrong with the current training and questioned whether the legislature mandating training for the judicial branch was a violation of the separation of powers.

“Listening to the testimony from the witnesses suggests some kind of deep, in some cases even philosophical type of issues,” he said. “We have a process for electing judges and retaining judges so why isn’t the solution there just a political one?”

Former Cook County Judge Patricia Martin, who retired in November after presiding over the child protection division for two decades, said she didn’t think there was enough training for judges and would support additional training focused on child abuse, with an emphasis on equitable treatment.

“I think it’s a continuous learning curve,” said Martin, who has trained judges through the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. “I was learning every time I went to do a speech myself. I think the person who decides to stop learning and they know everything, they need to retire.”