Background and a Brief History and Guide to the Illinois Judicial System

The Illinois Supreme Court came into existence on December 3, 1818, when then President James Monroe signed an Act of Congress admitting Illinois to the United States as a state. In anticipation, a constitutional convention was held in Kaskaskia, the state's first capital, and the first state constitution was adopted there on August 26, 1818. Article IV of that first constitution provided generally for a state judicial system, stating that the judicial power was vested in a supreme court composed of four justices, and 'such inferior courts as the [Illinois] General Assembly [the bicameral state legislature] shall establish.'

The first four Illinois Supreme Court justices were appointed by the general assembly to serve until the expiration of their terms in 1824. Under the first constitution, the general assembly had the authority to appoint all four Illinois Supreme Court justices and all judges throughout the state.

The Illinois General Assembly in 1818 divided the state into four judicial circuits. Justices of the peace, elected or appointed by local government officials, administered the ordinary, day-by-day business of the law. Initially there were no circuit courts. The individual Illinois Supreme Court justices rode circuit, meaning that they periodically came to the circuit to decided accumulated cases in the jurisdiction.

The state capital moved from Kaskaskia to Vandalia in 1820, where it remained for 20 years. In 1824 when the terms of the first four Illinois Supreme Court justices expired, the general assembly appointed four new justices and added a fifth. These judges had no fixed term, serving at the pleasure of the general assembly with a two-thirds vote.

In 1824 the Illinois General Assembly, in addition to adding a justice to the Supreme Court, created five circuit court judgeships, one for each circuit. However, in 1827, a new general assembly legislated out of existence the newly created organization of judicial circuits and judgeships, and returned the Illinois Supreme Court justices to four justices who rode circuit.

In 1836 Abraham Lincoln, a young lawyer from Sangamon County, introduced legislation removing the capital from Vandalia to Springfield, which occurred in 1839.

Again in 1841 the entire judiciary was reorganized: all circuit courts and sitting circuit court judges were legislated out of existence, while the number of Illinois Supreme Court justices increased from four to nine justices who rode circuit.

From 1818 to 1848, the Illinois General Assembly appointed twenty-three justices to the Illinois Supreme Court. During this period, the general assembly, at its pleasure, appointed and removed numerous circuit court judges.

In 1848 a new constitution was adopted which completely restructured the court system, replacing all nine sitting Supreme Court justices and establishing a Supreme Court of three justices. These justices were to be elected by popular vote in three newly created 'grand divisions' of the state. The term of office for these justices was nine years, and they were required to convene together as a court only three times a year, once in each division. Since 1848 all Supreme Court justices have been popularly elected in partisan primary and general elections, as they were in 2015.

Another constitutional convention was called in 1869 and in 1870 the third Illinois constitution was adopted, including Article VI setting out a new and more complex judicial system. The 1870 constitution in Article VI established a supreme court with seven justices, each elected to a nine-year term. The state was newly divided according to the distribution of the population into seven judicial district, with an elected justice from each district.

The 1870 constitution established a new appellate court and gave the Illinois Supreme Court the authority to make rules governing the judiciary at all levels. The 1870 constitution also required the Supreme Court to report annually to the Illinois Governor, to call attention to deficiencies or problems in state laws, and to recommend corrective legislation to the Illinois General Assembly.

This Supreme Court met in the seven districts until 1879 when the legislature required the Supreme Court to hear cases only in Springfield, and to sit for five terms each year. The 1870 constitution established autonomy for the court, with the newly created authority to initiate and improve existing law. This new authority was symbolized by the dedication of the new supreme court courthouse in Springfield in 1908.

From time to time, the Illinois General Assembly created numerous specialty courts in a piecemeal fashion, many with overlapping jurisdiction. By 1962 Cook County alone had 208 separate courts, including, for example, family court, criminal court, municipal court as well as 75 justice of the peace courts and 103 police magistrate courts. To address this confusion, the Judicial Article of 1964 (effective January 1, 1964) was adopted by the voters as a constitutional amendment, replacing Article VI of the 1870 constitution.

The Judicial Article of 1964 established a unified three-tier judicial system with a supreme court, appellate courts, and circuit courts. Prior specialty courts were abolished, and their jurisdiction, powers, and duties were transferred to the circuit courts.

The judicial system and supreme court created by the Judicial Article of 1964 effectively remained in place in 2015. The supreme court consisted of seven justices elected from five judicial districts for staggered ten-year terms. Three of the seven are elected from the First Judicial District (Cook County), while each of the other four justices are elected from their own judicial district.

The Judicial Article of 1964 vested in the Illinois Supreme Court general administrative authority over the entire court system and granted to the Illinois Supreme Court the authority to select its own chief justice for a three-year term with primary responsibility for court administration. By practice the position of chief justice falls to the next senior Justice. Additionally, the Judicial Article of 1964 set eligibility requirements for all other judges and prohibited judges from 'engag[ing] in the practice of law or hold[ing] any office or position of profit.'

The Illinois Constitution of 1970 left basically unchanged the system established in 1964: the three-tiered structure of the judicial system, the seven-member Illinois Supreme Court elected from the five established judicial districts, a system of oversight residing in the Supreme Court, and the system and practice of electing and appointing judges. A change was made in the type of appeals made to the Illinois Supreme Court in 1970, decreasing the Supreme Court's mandatory caseload, allowing the court to focus more on its administrative and supervisory responsibilities.