Court unveils mandatory performance evaluation plan
By Bethany Krajelis
Law Bulletin staff writer
SPRINGFIELD — About 100 Illinois judges are expected to receive performance evaluations this year under a program the Illinois Supreme Court rolled out Tuesday.
The change comes from the court’s decision to amend Rule 58, which was adopted more than two decades ago to authorize judicial performance evaluations on a voluntary basis.
Effective immediately, the rule now requires mandatory evaluations for all of the state’s circuit and associate judges. Appellate and Supreme Court justices, as well as judges who have served less than two years or more than 25 years on the bench, will not be subject to these confidential evaluations.
“This is an extremely important step in making a good judiciary even better,” said Chief Justice Thomas L. Kilbride. “This evaluation is for the purpose of enhancing the performance of Illinois judges and improving public confidence in the state’s courts.”
Cynthia Y. Cobbs, director of the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, said the new program marks the final implementation of a series of initiatives the court announced in December 2008.
The other initiatives include a new judge mentoring program, a statement of expectation for judges and a clarification of the authority and expectations of chief circuit judges and presiding appellate court justices.
“With the implementation of the other strategies, the performance and accountability of Illinois judges have already been strengthened,” Cobbs said. “This is another component of those strategies that will additionally fortify an already strong, capable and engaged judiciary.”
Under the new program, judges will be randomly selected through an electronic database to receive evaluations. These names will then be forwarded to the National Center for State Courts, which will administer the program.
Cobbs said her office entered into a contract with the NCSC for a period of about three years. It carries a price tag of about $850,000, a figure Cobbs said is slightly higher than previous contracts for the program when it was voluntary. But she said it is reasonable given the anticipated benefits.
The NCSC will be responsible for corresponding with the randomly selected judges, who will be required to provide the center with evaluation materials, including a list of people they work with and those who have appeared before them.
These individuals will then receive an electronic questionnaire from the NCSC, seeking an overall evaluation and information on the judges’ ability, impartiality, professionalism and communication and management skills.
While there is the possibility that a randomly selected judge will only provide the NCSC names of individuals who will give them good evaluations, Cobbs said her office is confident in the process, which she said tests for particular types of bias.
Cobbs stressed that the results of the evaluation will be confidential, shared only between the judge and a trained facilitator, who will most likely be a retired judge.
While the mandatory aspect of the program is new to Illinois, Cobbs said several judges participated in the program when it was voluntary.
Court spokesman Joseph R. Tybor said 74 judges volunteered to take part in a performance evaluation in 2008. He said these judges were from the 4th, 8th and 22nd judicial circuits as well as the 2nd Municipal District of the Cook County Circuit Court.
The mandatory program will be monitored by the Supreme Court Judicial Performance Evaluation Committee, which is chaired by 1st District Appellate Justice Joy V. Cunningham.
Cunningham said she hopes judges will embrace the program.
“This is strictly an internal process that will help the judges become better at what they do,” she said. “I think we have a highly efficient judiciary here in Illinois and we want to make sure we keep it that way.”
Cook County Circuit Judge Lewis M. Nixon, who serves as the president of the Illinois Judges’ Association, agreed.
He said judges should be well aware of the program, which Cunningham discussed at the most recent judicial education conference.
“I think it’s going to be a tool that will help judges do their job better,” Nixon said of the mandatory program. “If you’re a good judge, you may become a better judge.”
Saying judges “are probably the most evaluated beings on the planet,” Nixon said there’s a big difference between judicial evaluations conducted by bar associations and the court’s mandatory program.
Nixon said rather than simply receiving a rating, the court’s evaluation program will provide judges with immediate feedback and corrective assistance, if needed.
Noting that the program was created with input from judges, Nixon said his colleagues should realize the court’s mandatory evaluation “will probably be the most accurate.”
While Cobbs said she estimates that between 100 and 125 judges will be evaluated this year, she expects all of the state’s circuit and associate judges, excluding those who have served less than two years, will be evaluated within the next five to seven years.