Off the Bench | Courthouse employees stay plenty busy

Off the Bench | Courthouse employees stay plenty busy

Do you ever have a memory from a prior event pop into your mind? That happened to me recently when I recalled my first interview for the judgeship in the Central District of Illinois.

That interview took place in the federal courthouse in Peoria. At the time, I was serving as a judge in the state system. I was used to a courthouse that was full of people. Sometimes we had so many people for a given courtroom that folks had to wait in the hallway until their name was called. The contrast was dramatic. I encountered very few people other than court employees.

That memory led me to wonder what a visitor to the federal courthouse in Urbana might see and conclude when walking through the building and checking in on all three courtrooms.

We'll call our hypothetical visitors Terri and Tom Taxpayer. They are skeptical of government and tend to assume the worst.

For the first scenario, we shall pick a day when things are really hopping. The scenario is real. Terri and Tom head to the third floor, where two jury trials are in progress. During a break in one trial, the judge conducts an initial appearance for an individual who was arrested by the FBI the evening before.

Next, our couple visits the first-floor courtroom, in which a bench trial is taking place. The first-floor courtroom does not have a jury box, so the trial before the judge is held there. That said, I do recall one time during my tenure conducting a jury trial in that courtroom because we had three that day. We just set up chairs and got after it.

On such a day, even Terri and Tom might have been surprised and impressed. However, not every day looks like the first scenario. We should look at another day which is more likely to raise the eyebrows of our couple.

On the day of this visit, they check each courtroom. They see little or no activity and immediately conclude nothing is being done. They complain that in this beautiful courthouse that they paid for, nothing is being done by the people they are paying. This is a predictable response from a pair who have a preconceived notion and do not possess all the facts.

So here is the rest of the story. It is reality. Courtroom A is empty. A jury trial had been scheduled, but at the last minute, the parties settled the case. The jurors had been thanked by the judge and released. The judge will decide whether to make the litigants pay the cost of bringing in the jurors. That will depend on the circumstances resulting in the last-minute cancellation. Since the time opened up and the judge is available, an assistant U.S. attorney and law enforcement agents can see the judge in chambers to seek a search and/or arrest warrant.

Courtroom B is also empty. The judge is in chambers preparing for a court-hosted mediation set for the following week. The judge has read written submissions from the lawyers and is conducting separate telephone conferences with the lawyers. No record is made because these conversations are confidential. Consequently, the judge remains in chambers to conduct these conferences.

When the judge has finished the mediation preparation, he meets with the law clerk or clerks to review the pending motion list. They prioritize to avoid having an overdue ruling. Following that meeting, the judge may engage in an in-depth discussion with the law clerk regarding a motion that has reached the top of the list. Terri and Tom do not see this work being accomplished because it is being handled in chambers.

Finally, our guests visit Courtroom C. This time they see a judge as well as a deputy clerk. No one else is present, and the judge is not wearing a robe. Remaining suspicious, the taxpayers listen and learn that the judge is scheduling conferences by phone. The lawyers are on the phone. It is common to have lawyers from Chicago and other remote locations representing parties in cases pending in Urbana. Allowing them to appear by phone in non-evidentiary hearings saves travel time and expense for the clients.

Terri and Tom grudgingly concede that work is being done even when they cannot see it.

Trust me, Terri and Tom, there are dedicated people in that courthouse, including, but not limited to judges, working hard daily. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with them.

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

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