On July 30th, Judge Margaret Mullen of the Nineteenth Judicial Circuit was a guest on “Everyday Law” to discuss the role of the judge in the legal system, as well as programs make the Lake County courthouse more “user-friendly.”
Judge Mullen began her legal career as a Clerk to an Appellate Justice. She also worked as a criminal prosecutor for the DuPage County State’s Attorneys Office and subsequently worked for the Lake County State’s Attorney in the civil division. However, she has always had the goal of becoming a judge since her days as a student in law school. She feels it is a privilege to be a judge where people being their problems to her to resolve.
In Lake County, there are 15 full Circuit Judges and 24 Associate Judges. Judge Mullen stated that though there are some differences between the two categories, Circuit and Associate Judges have the same duties and responsibilities in the courtroom, though usually more Circuit Judges preside in the Felony Division of the Criminal Courtrooms and the Law Division of the Civil Courtrooms. The Circuit Judges are elected by the people while Associate Judges are chosen by the Circuit Judges. Circuit Judges are paid slightly more than Associate Judges, and Circuit Judges have additional administrative authority and duties.
Asked about her role in a trial by jury, Judge Mullen said that she is the arbiter of the law, while the jury is the arbiter of facts. An example of a fact question for the jury would be “Is the injury caused by the accident?” A question of law for a judge would be “Is the doctor qualified to offer testimony in this trial?” A judge is also the gatekeeper of evidence and decides what evidence is allowed into a trial. A judge also manages the process of the trial and ensures that the rules are followed for the benefit of the parties and the jury. Additionally, the judge instructs the jury before they deliberate. She stated that generally judges are more passive with regard to rulings in a civil trial than in a criminal trial as more is at stake in a criminal trial: a person’s liberty. She finds the trial process to be an adventure as she is listening and learning along with the jury as the truth unfolds during the trial. A judge has no crystal ball as to how a trial will turn out.
Judge Mullen discussed mentor programs for judges. Informal mentoring occurred prior to the installation of a Judge Mentoring Program in 1998, which consists of a 1 year program for new judges, pairing an experienced judge with a new judge. Additionally, there is a peer mentoring program so that judges who seek assistance in a particular area can obtain the help they need from another, more experienced judge.
Mandatory Sentencing laws were also discussed. Such laws have been effect in Illinois since the mid-1980s with Class X sentencing for certain felonies requiring prison time. There is a national debate about such mandatory sentencing laws and whether they take away too much of a judge’s discretion in sentencing.
Finally, Judge Mullen has helped with the implementation of many programs that have helped make the Courthouse more user-friendly to the public. One such program is the Small Claims Mediation Program for people who are representing themselves without a lawyer in Small Claims Court (under $10,000.00). This program helps individuals resolve their claims with the assistance of a trained, volunteer lawyer in a more relaxed setting and possibly avoid a trial. Another program is the Mortgage Foreclosure Help Desk, which provides educational and mediation assistance to people facing foreclosures in Lake County. A third program designed to assist people using the legal system is the JusticeCorps. This program is funded by Americorps grants and provides volunteers in the Courthouse to help with various legal forms such as forms for expungements and uncontested divorces. Many of these volunteers can be found in the William D. Block Memorial Law Library. Another program is the Access to Justice which, as its name suggests, tries to make the Courthouse and the legal system more accessible to everyone. One such implementation is the availability of interpreters for civil cases by 2016.
Robert Monahan, Esq. is a lawyer in Gurnee, IL with his own practice in personal injury. He has a radio show on Thursday nights at 7 pm, called “Everyday Law,” on WRLR 98.3 FM, where he tries to demystify the law for the ordinary person. “Everyday Law” can be downloaded as a podcast from iTunes or other various podcatchers. His two websites are www.monahanfirm.com and www.gurneepersonalinjuryattorney.com. He also has two Facebook pages – “Robert A. Monahan, Esq.” and “Everyday Law.”