Civility

Reimagining Law: Why Judges Can’t Look Away When Incivility Arises

In this episode of Reimagining Law, we talk to Judge Michael J. Chmiel of the 22nd Judicial Circuit in McHenry County, Ill. Judge Chmiel talks about how judges can set the tone for civility in the courts, why they can’t turn the other way when incivility arises, and the standing orders he issued that promote civility and professionalism in his courtroom.

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Timestamps

00:00:44 Judge Chmiel, our world seems to be consumed with a lot of contention and division. How can lawyers and judges, who are typically leaders in our communities, help to set the tone for civility?

00:02:16 How do you define civility and professionalism?

00:04:28 As a judge, how do you respond to incivility in your courtroom?

00:05:53 You issued a series of standing orders that begin with a section reminding parties and attorneys to engage in professionalism and civility in the handling of Court cases and to confer on pending matters before coming to the courthouse. Why did you issue this order?

00:08:40 Do you think incivility undermines public trust in the justice system?

00:09:53 What is one piece of advice you would share with lawyers and judges who want to make a positive difference in the profession?

Related Resources

About Judge Michael J. Chmiel

Judge Michael J. Chmiel was elected to the 22nd Circuit Court of Illinois in 2006 when the circuit was created, won retention in 2012, and will assume the role of chief judge in December 2022. Judge Chmiel grew up on the southwest side of Chicago and attended the University of Illinois College of Law. He has previously practiced law in Chicago and Rockford.

This interview was recorded on July 8, 2022.

Transcript

Erika Harold 0:07 

Hi, I’m Erika Harold, Executive Director of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism. Welcome to Reimagining Law. Today I’m joined by Judge Michael Chmiel, presiding judge of the civil division in the 22nd Judicial Circuit in McHenry County, who will be chief judge in December. We will talk today about the role of lawyers and judges in helping to steer courtrooms, workplaces, and society as a whole toward civility. Judge Chmiel, thanks for joining me. Before we jump in, I’d like to remind our viewers to like this video and subscribe to our channel for new videos from the Commission. Now let’s get started. Judge Chmiel, our world seems to be consumed with a lot of contention and division. How can lawyers and judges who are typically leaders in our communities help to set the tone for civility?

Judge Michael J. Chmiel 0:57 

One way is to show up. First, we’re in the front lines, that’s what Shakespeare said about lawyers and people. We are on the front lines. People come to us with issues. I think it’s important for us to stay in our lanes, to use the current vernacular. But this is a challenge as well. Social media is really challenging. It’s the new world order; I think we have to respect it; we have to realize it. We have to take a deep breath before responding too. I think all too often, we’re quick to hit a button. But take a deep breath because of, candidly, who we are, whether you’re an attorney, or a judge, or any person for that matter. We have to realize what we say is important. There is a concern people have talked about over the last couple of years about cancel culture and either canceling somebody or not showing up, if you will. But I think it’s important to show up and to be thoughtful because everything we say and do reflects upon us in our profession. I think that’s how we set the tone for civility.

Erika Harold 2:16 

Those are big terms—civility and professionalism. How would you define civility and professionalism?

Judge Michael J. Chmiel 2:24 

True enough. Civility, without being redundant, is being polite, respecting other views, and it’s really important because too often there are other views. We have opinions and I think we need to realize that there’s another opinion out there, “having a good bedside manner” to use the term from the medical profession. Oddly enough, having a good bedside manner in our world might be good for business as well. I think if we’re being civil, we’re being polite, we’re respecting other views, that doesn’t mean you have to endorse the other view. If you’re representing the plaintiff, you don’t have to endorse the defendant’s point of view because you have a job to do. But having a good bedside manner or civility, in the end, is typically better for business. There are some who like the uncivil person, but I think generally people want to gravitate to somebody who is civil. Professionalism, on the other hand, is knowing what we are doing, knowing what we are saying, realizing our role, and knowing and respecting the profession, because we’re a part of it. One of the cool things about our profession is we more or less police ourselves; we have people on all aspects of it. We’re in a profession, and I don’t take that lightly. I think most people don’t. Sometimes we forget about that. “It’s a job.” No, it’s a profession. In our profession, what are we doing? We’re ultimately advancing the Rule of Law. Through our work, we’re helping order society. I think it’s huge that we have a profession, we police ourselves, know what we’re doing and, in the end, civility and professionalism come together. They’re so interwoven and I think they’re very important for us to have in our presence.

Erika Harold 4:28 

As a judge, how do you respond when incivility occurs in your courtroom?

Judge Michael J. Chmiel 4:33 

Well, the easy way is to make sure it never happens—or look the other way, but you can’t. In my courtroom when I’m thinking about different things that have happened in Courtroom 202 here in Woodstock—come visit—I think it’s important to address it. It’s difficult at times we have to know our role. To me a very important role for judges is temperament, but people come to us they look for us to steer the ship if you will. So, I think it’s important to deal with it. Sometimes we have to educate people on it. In other words, what’s the role of everybody, me the judge, the attorney, the witness, whoever it is? And we have to remind people. Oftentimes I’ll admonish witnesses from the witness box, “The role of the attorney is this, the role of the witness is this, together will try to advance the cause.” You have to meet it with a proper tone. Typically, with incivility, we’re working to deescalate it. I got that from the marshals of the Supreme Court, colleagues of mine on court security, but you want to deescalate it. You have to address it. And then ultimately, we as judges have to use the tools we have. If it doesn’t tone down? Well, I’ll be shy about what I say, but we judges have a fair amount of power, direction, authority, and we have to use it, but we have to cage it. And I think ultimately, to get back to the point, we need to address it.

Erika Harold 5:53 

You issued a series of standing orders that begin with a section that reminds parties and attorneys to engage in professionalism and civility in the handling of court cases, and to confer on pending matters before coming to the courthouse. What made you decide to issue that order?

Judge Michael J. Chmiel 6:11 

Well, I’ve been doing this a while as an attorney in the trenches, then as a judge now for over 17 years. What I saw is oftentimes people would come up the cases called, they’d meet each other at the bench or in front of the bench, and they maybe shake hands or just say I’m here for the plaintiff or I’m here for the defendant. I’ve had a sense from the bench that people are not talking before. This takes me back to when Justice Bob Thomas kind of inspired and put together the Commission on Professionalism. I said, “Why do we need that?” And then ever since I’m reminded of seeing that type of conduct. So, selfishly, it helps us process the case, but what we’re here to do in our courtrooms is we are here to help people with their issues, their problems, their disagreements. If you don’t talk before you come up here, then this is a real awkward setting. Everything in my courtroom for the most part is recorded, and I want people to have that discussion. It’s helpful when attorneys are involved, but even when a litigant isn’t involved, where it’s difficult to represent yourself, because you’re in it, you’re passionate about it, I think it’s important going back to civility, to respect the other side, respect their two points of view. Otherwise, we probably wouldn’t have a case in the courtroom. It’s important to have that dialogue to realize we have an issue that you’re coming to us at the courthouses to address. The reason why I put it in my standing order, and I encourage the judges in our civil division to do it as well, is we often have to remind ourselves that we love our jobs. I love my profession. I think reminding ourselves is important. To me, it’s a critical function of what we do in courtrooms. We engage to come up with a resolution. We typically say there’s a winner and a loser, but at least if people feel like they had a good shake, that there was a good process, then I think the world gets to be a better place. I really do. That’s more or less why. I do it more than anything to remind people that it’s a critical function of people involved in the case, especially if you’re an attorney representing somebody else.

Erika Harold 8:40 

Do you think that incivility undermines public trust in the justice system?

Judge Michael J. Chmiel 8:45 

Absolutely, yes. When you see somebody who’s bombastic or whatever the word is, don’t you scratch your head and say, “Well, maybe I should meet this person outside?” Well, that’s not the justice system. That’s, with all due respect, the Old-World ways of centuries ago. No, we’ve evolved. That undermines and cuts from what we’re trying to do. If we can provide an orderly forum, we can then advance what is the Rule of Law, but we need buy-in by everyone, by judges, by attorneys, by our court staff. I include everyone, but the litigants and the parties. For them to come here and want to deal with us, they have to feel like they’re going to get a fair shake, so to speak. And incivility pushes that away and it prevents it from happening. I can’t emphasize enough incivility—we’ve got to get rid of it. There’s a place for that. Maybe on the athletic field or in a boxing match, but not in the courtroom.

Erika Harold 9:53 

What is one piece of advice that you would share with lawyers and judges who want to make a positive difference in the profession?

Judge Michael J. Chmiel 10:01 

Well, I’ve used this phrase from a friend who has inspired this in my vernacular of late, and that is, “Show up, get involved, stay involved.” I really, really believe that it’s what we make of it. When you think it through, they’re U.S. attorneys, right? Even as judges, we have to be an attorney, whether it’s a new grad or even a law student, all the way up to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. We’re all in this together. What we do is so important. What I mean by showing up: show up, be civil, be professional in your daily job, but as well do some of what you and I are doing here, working to advance the Rule of Law through teaching, sharing ideas, collaborating. It’s important to have a life too, but for our profession, I really believe you have to show up and participate. It’s what we make of it.

Erika Harold 10:58 

Well, Judge Chmiel, thank you so much for joining us. And to all of you who are watching, please like and share this video and subscribe to our channel to stay updated on new videos from the Commission. Thank you so much for watching.

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