Conflict will keep new judge away from some Piatt cases

MONTICELLO — Newly appointed Sixth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Hugh Finson has practiced law in Monticello his entire professional life, but he will not spend much time on the bench in Piatt County when he begins his new job Sept. 4.

Finson's niece is Piatt County State's Attorney Dana Rhoades, which means he cannot hear criminal cases in his home county due to a conflict of interest. Instead, most of his time will be spent in other counties in the six-county circuit, according to Dan Flannell, chief judge of the circuit.

"I will be entering an order fairly quickly that will assign (Finson) Mondays in Moultrie, Tuesdays and Wednesdays in DeWitt, and Thursdays and Fridays in Douglas County," Flannell said.

Flannell said such conflicts are not uncommon and would have also been the case with at least two of the other judicial candidates: Rhoades and Monticello attorney Roger Simpson.

Rhoades would not have been able to hear cases with Finson involved, and Simpson would have been barred from hearing cases with defendants he represented as public defender.

Flannell said the screening committee was aware of Finson's conflict.

"I think they (the judge screening committee) did the right thing," Flannell said. "I urged Chief Justice (Rita) Garman and the other committee members to not consider such conflicts, to just select the most qualified person and let me take care of the rest."

Champaign psychiatrist Lawrence Jeckel chaired the screening committee and confirmed they were aware of the situation.

"It really was a consideration, and in our rankings, that was included. It was noted," Jeckel said.

"We passed that consideration up to Justice Garman. If she thought that was a road block, she could go to other choices."

For now, Flannell will continue to help with cases in Piatt County, something he has done since Judge John P. Shonkwiler went on medical leave in May. Judge Shonkwiler died July 18.

Finson may eventually officiate over cases in the Piatt County Courthouse. Civil cases are not a conflict, and Flannell hopes that eventually Finson can hear cases one or two days a week in Monticello.

Flannell said that under the Judicial Code of Conduct, attorneys who are within a third-degree relation to a judge cannot appear in his or her court. As Finson's niece, Rhoades is a third-degree relation.

The only alternative to moving Finson around the circuit would be to have all parties involved in each case sign waivers.

"That's unfeasible with the volume in mind," said Flannell, pointing out that waivers would be needed in nearly all of the county's criminal cases while Rhoades is state's attorney.

Rhoades was elected state's attorney in 2008 and is running for re-election this fall to another four-year term.

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