Shelley M. Bethune was recently named the first executive director and general counsel of the Illinois Courts Commission. Bethune’s background in legal ethics and disciplinary processes, including serving as litigation counsel for the ARDC, makes her well-suited to the Commission’s charge of handling ethics complaints against judges.
The Illinois Courts Commission was created by the 1970 Illinois Constitution to adjudicate complaints brought by the Judicial Inquiry Board against Illinois judges alleging violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct. Administrative duties for the Commission previously fell to the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts.
We spoke to Bethune about her plans for the Commission, its role in the Illinois judicial community, and the biggest ethical challenges facing judges today.
What are your priorities for the Commission as Executive Director?
One overall priority is to make the Courts Commission and the important work that it does more transparent. Transparency is crucial for the public, including lawyers and judges, to have confidence in Illinois’ judiciary.
I hope to accomplish this in several ways, including by building a website that will give the public access to past and pending Commission cases (right now, there are a number of older Commission Orders that are only available in books!) and through educational outreach on judicial ethics and the role of the Commission in Illinois.
Another priority is to assist the Commissioners in fulfilling their duties on the Commission. This will include maintaining the Commission’s docket and providing research on judicial disciplinary precedent in Illinois.
In the past, the Commission didn’t have staff members to help with these tasks, so it’s a priority of mine to make sure the Commissioners have the information and resources they need to make decisions.
What are your plans for growing the staff?
Right now, the plan is to hire one or two additional staff members. In the immediate future, we need someone with an accounting background or experience handling financial reporting and payroll for an Illinois state agency.
We may also consider adding an administrative support person, though it may not be necessary right now.
Long term, it’s possible that the Commission would hire another attorney who is familiar with legal ethics and disciplinary matters.
How can lawyers, judges, and the general public use the Commission’s website?
The plan is to get all the past Commission Orders on the website and have them be searchable. I’m working with a website designer who has given me hope that the public will be able to search by keyword or narrow by date in order to find Commission Orders quicker and easier.
We’d also like to get the Commission’s docket on the website, so people can see what is currently pending before the Commission and when the hearings on those matters will be.
In addition, we would like to have informational resources for judges, lawyers, and the public, such as the Code of Judicial Conduct, the Rules of the Commission, and links to other agencies or resources that may be relevant, such as the Judicial Inquiry Board’s website and the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission’s website.
What are the biggest ethical issues facing judges today?
I think civility is always a big ethical issue for judges. Civility is a bit of a broad term and can encompass behavior that may not necessarily rise to a violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct.
Judges are people too, and they make hard (and important) decisions every day in difficult cases. This can be draining and sometimes litigants might press a judge’s buttons for a variety of reasons.
It’s important for a judge to recognize when this may be happening and take whatever appropriate action is necessary to avoid saying or doing something they might regret later.
What are the biggest issues impacting public trust in the judicial system?
My perception is that the public thinks politics are in the courtrooms. And, of course, one of the problems with that is that people don’t believe they will receive a fair and unbiased process if they find themselves in a courthouse.
I recently attended an educational conference where I learned about procedural fairness. Research has shown that when people believe they’ve received a fair process before a court, they are more likely to accept the court’s decision (regardless of whether they won or lost) and obey the court’s orders.
There is no one way to define procedural fairness, but oftentimes it’s a combination of the litigants feeling like they have been heard, the judge applying neutral principles or rules to the case, the litigants being treated with respect, and the litigants understanding the process and why decisions are made.
Illinois does a fantastic job at providing continuing education to the judges here, which is important for improving litigants’ experience in courtrooms and, in turn, the public’s trust in the system.
Another issue impacting trust is that people may not believe there is any real accountability for judges. That is why I believe it’s so important to make the Courts Commission more transparent and accessible to the public – so people know there is accountability for judges in Illinois.
I’m hopeful that building the Commission’s website and getting the older Commission Orders online will help inspire the public’s trust and confidence in the Illinois judiciary.
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