David Bernthal/Off the Bench | Deliberate process in appointing a judge

David Bernthal/Off the Bench | Deliberate process in appointing a judge

The subject of selection of judges has been described in previous columns. Recent events have provided an excellent illustration in real life rather than in the abstract. We can learn by taking a closer look at the aftermath of the retirement announcement from Champaign County Judge Michael Jones.

Before proceeding, a comment regarding Judge Jones is in order. He has spent the bulk of his adult life serving people and defending the Constitution. As a military officer, lawyer and circuit judge, he has shown a remarkable devotion to his country and his fellow citizens.

While he will be missed, he must be replaced.

The retirement of Judge Jones created a vacancy in the office of circuit judge in the Sixth Judicial Circuit, Champaign County, Illinois. The Illinois Supreme Court justice responsible for this area, Justice Rita Garman, had a choice to make. She could have chosen to leave the position open until it could be filled by the general election of 2018. This would have left a busy court shorthanded, creating an adverse impact on the court's ability to address cases in a timely fashion.

In the alternative, Justice Garman could have sought out a person who agreed to serve in the interim but not run. Typically, this "caretaker" role would be undertaken by a retired judge or senior lawyer willing to step out of the practice for a limited stint on the bench. The pros and cons of this approach could fill the balance of this column. Suffice it to say that the cons outweighed the pros in this situation and another approach was employed.

Justice Garman decided that the position would be filled by a person who would be willing to run for the seat in 2018. Filling the open judgeship in this manner is a task for the Illinois Supreme Court with Justice Garman taking the lead due to the location of the judicial vacancy. A notice of the vacancy was published in a variety of ways and interested candidates were given directions regarding the application process.

A citizen panel was created to review applications, check references and evaluate the candidates. In addition to lawyers, this group included business and community representatives. These people were asked to perform an important task. They accepted the invitation and jumped to the challenge. The members of the panel did not receive compensation. They certainly deserve our thanks.

Several lawyers applied for the position. Interestingly, the number was smaller than the number of persons who recently sought the position of associate circuit judge. Given that the circuit judge position carries a larger salary and is a higher rank in the judiciary, the reader may be puzzled by this disparity. In my mind, it is explained by the fact that the person appointed will have to run for the seat in the 2018 election. The prospect of running for office causes some to forgo the pursuit. Some people consider this a flaw in the system. They think people who would be good judges are deterred. Others reject that and claim that the position should be held only by those willing to go through the campaign process.

All those who applied deserve credit. They put themselves out there and faced the consequences. Having faced citizen panels and judges in the appointment process (including times when I was not chosen), I know that this is difficult and stressful. There was one position to be filled. As a result, each person seeking the position faced disappointment.

As has been reported, the Supreme Court chose Jason Bohm as the circuit judge replacing Judge Jones. Judge Bohm's immediate prior service was with the U.S. Department of Justice where he served as an assistant united states attorney, most recently in Urbana.

I have had the opportunity to observe him in the courtroom and the privilege to get to know him. With no disrespect toward the other candidates who sought the appointment, I commend the choice. Judge Bohm brings to the bench intellect, energy, integrity and dedication to service.

The process has concluded for now. However, as referenced earlier, the final step will be taken in November. While a vacancy can be filled by appointment, the position is ultimately filled by the voters. To keep the judgeship, Judge Bohm will be required to run in 2020 and be chosen by the electorate. He may face opposition in the primary, the general election or both. The winner of the election will hold the seat for the six-year term of office. Thereafter, the judge is on the ballot for retention but does not face an opponent.

Congratulations to Judge Bohm and thanks to the other applicants, the citizen panel and the Supreme Court, particularly Justice Garman.

David Bernthal of Mahomet is a retired 21-year federal magistrate. He is a counsel with the Webber & Thies PC law firm and serves as senior mediator and arbitrator with ADR Systems. His email is askthejudge1@gmail.com.

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