Judge's retirement leads to different court assignments

Judge's retirement leads to different court assignments

SULLIVAN — The upcoming retirement of one of the Sixth Judicial Circuit's associate judges is going to mean some assignment juggling in at least four of the counties in the circuit.

Sixth Circuit Chief Judge Dan Flannell confirmed that Associate Judge Chris Freese has informed him that he intends to retire Dec. 2.

Freese, of rural Sullivan, will be 60 later this month. He has been on the bench since 1999 and for much of his judicial career has been the associate judge to ride the circuit, meaning he has heard cases in the four smaller counties of the Sixth Circuit: DeWitt, Douglas, Moultrie and Piatt.

Flannell said that as soon as the Illinois Supreme Court receives notice of Freese's retirement and agrees to let him fill the position, he'll solicit applications.

"My target date is to have a person selected by Nov. 15 to start on Jan. 2," he said, noting he wants to give the lawyer chosen 45 days to wrap up his or her practice.

Because of a current Supreme Court policy that judicial positions have to remain vacant for 30 days to save the state money, Flannell said, there will be a month when the other judges in the circuit will have to pick up Freese's workload.

But for the next three months, Freese will sit almost all the time in Monticello while Hugh Finson rides the circuit.

Finson, a Monticello attorney, was appointed by the Illinois Supreme Court in July to fill the circuit judgeship vacancy created by the death of Judge John Shonkwiler on July 18.

Finson will be sworn in at the Piatt County Courthouse in Monticello on Tuesday morning by Supreme Court Justice Rita Garman.

As the resident circuit judge, tradition dictates that Finson would sit in Monticello. But because his niece, Dana Rhoades, is the Piatt County state's attorney, Finson has to recuse himself from hearing any criminal cases in the county to avoid a conflict of interest.

Flannell said Freese will hear cases in Piatt County on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. On Thursdays, Freese will go back to Moultrie County and hear cases in Sullivan while Flannell finishes up cases in Monticello that he inherited when Judge Shonkwiler became ill.

Flannell said he will also continue to serve as the presiding judge in Piatt County until Finson gets a larger caseload of civil cases there.

The presiding judge in each county typically takes care of administrative issues.

"It's putting out fires and deciding who will go where and when, resolving issues with clerks," Flannell said, adding he doesn't mind continuing in that role for a while because he has more experience and because Finson couldn't do anything with criminal cases anyway because of his ongoing conflict as long as Rhoades remains in office. She's running for re-election in the fall.

Finson has been appointed to the remainder of Judge Shonkwiler's term, meaning that if he wants to continue in the post, he'll have to run for the office in 2014. He would have to run only in Piatt County, not all six counties of the circuit as some circuit judges must.

In the meantime, Flannell said his plan is that Finson will be in Moultrie County on Mondays, DeWitt County on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and Douglas County on Thursdays and Fridays.

Flannell said another of his plans is to eventually consolidate all the small claims cases in Piatt County to the first Friday of the month, as opposed to the one day a week they are now heard, and assign them all to Finson.

"As I get more civil cases assigned to him, I will pull him away from Moultrie County first. I need him less than the other counties because of the (lower) volume," said Flannell, who added that he actually loves presiding over traffic court in Sullivan because it's the "only fun thing we do."

"People do stupid stuff and show up with silly stories," he said.