Committee proposes changes to Illinois Code of Judicial Conduct

Illinois Supreme Court building

Randy Von Liski / Flickr

The Illinois Supreme Court building in Springfield. The court could decide soon whether to adopt major changes to the Illinois Code of Judicial Conduct for the first time in decades.

The Illinois Code of Judicial Conduct could get a major overhaul for the first time in almost two decades, bringing it in line with national standards by addressing the use of social media and other technology that didn’t exist at the code’s last major update in 1993.

The Illinois Judicial Ethics Committee, a volunteer group of attorneys and current and former judges, will present its proposal for the new code to the Illinois Supreme Court Rules Committee in a public hearing Wednesday morning. The Illinois Supreme Court will have the ultimate say over what parts of the proposal make it into the Code of Judicial Conduct.

The proposed update makes it clear that judges cannot post or repost articles on social media that could make them appear biased, such as opinion articles, memes, or jokes in bad taste. The proposed code also explicitly prohibits judges from using the internet to independently find information about a case that’s before them, such as viewing a litigant’s Facebook page or searching the location of a crime on Google Maps.

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Raymond McKoski, a retired Lake County judge and vice chair of the ethics committee, said judges have always been prohibited from considering factual information that is not presented to them in court. But that rule became more difficult to follow “when we had instant access to millions of items of information about everybody on the internet,” he said.

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The code of conduct establishes ethical guidelines for judges and judicial candidates, from broad guidelines about judges’ responsibility to promote the integrity of the judiciary to the specific instances when judges should recuse themselves from a case. Judges who violate the code can be brought before the Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board and the Illinois Courts Commission, which can reprimand, censure, suspend, or remove a judge; though public sanctions against a judge in Illinois are very rare.

The Illinois Judicial Ethics Committee has been tinkering with changes to the ethics code since the American Bar Association came out with an update to its Model Code of Judicial Conduct in 2007. A version of the ABA’s 2007 model code is already in place in at least 37 states, according to the Illinois Judicial Ethics Committee.

Steven Pflaum, the chair of the committee, said most of the proposed updates are not meant to be “revolutionary” but clarifications to the existing code.

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In addition to including references to social media, the proposal also changes the financial disclosures that judges must file each year with the clerk of the Illinois Supreme Court.

Under the proposed rules, judges will have to disclose more detailed information about their assets than they do now, including specific stocks and bonds that they own, addresses of real estate they own (aside from their personal residences), and names of lawyers or law firms they’ve worked with in the previous three years. The proposal also raises the threshold for reportable income and debt from $500 to $1,000.

“You want to require judges to divulge financial information that’s relevant, and at the same time, there are certainly aspects of what folks’ financial condition are for which there are legitimate privacy concerns,” Pflaum said. “We did our best to come up with a statement of financial interest that strikes an appropriate balance.”

But the proposed changes do not make those financial disclosures more readily accessible to the public. Currently, judges’ financial disclosure statements are available to the public but must be requested in paper form from the Illinois Supreme Court. The ABA’s model code recommends making partial disclosures available online, but the ethics committee’s proposal does not adopt that recommendation.

After the hearing, which will be Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. via Zoom, the rules committee will send its recommendation to the Illinois Supreme Court, which will have the final decision to accept, modify, or decline the proposal.

Click below for the ethics committee’s full proposal, including comments on the proposed changes and how they compare to the ABA’s Model Rules.

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