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Judiciary: more equal?


The woeful ignorance many Americans show of basic facts of history, geography and science has been well documented in numerous studies over the last few years. Still, Illinois Issues subscribers may be a cut above the average Joe Six-Pack such surveys seem to feature. So at the risk of redundancy, here's a pop quiz to test, gentle reader, your knowledge of current affairs.

Question: In what capital city in recent weeks did a ruling elite demonstrate that it intended to obey only those laws it chose to?

(A) Was it Panama City, where General Manuel Antonio Noriega's toadies scrubbed an election because they didn't like the result?

(B) Or could it have been East Berlin, where the aging and ailing Erich Honecker abruptly sealed his country's borders with its Communist neighbors to stem a refugee tide to the West?

(C) Perhaps Harare, where Zimbabwe's only university was shut down after the arrests of two student leaders who criticized the government?

And now for the envelope. Would you believe Springfield?

Well, believe it or not, that's also a correct answer. In a declaration more befitting a banana republic caudillo than the Land of Lincoln's judiciary, the Illinois Supreme Court has let it be known that the state's judicial branch would decide for itself which laws to obey.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this latest example of judicial hubris was directed at Illinois Auditor General Robert G. Cronson, a long-time nemesis of the high court. The amazing ukase came in response to an audit in which Cronson charged the Supreme Court with ignoring state laws and sound business practices in running the state's $157-million-a-year court system.

Cronson and the justices have been at loggerheads for years because of the auditor's single-minded determination to audit all the funds held by the court, as the Constitution and sound auditing principles would seem to require, and not just those the black robes deign to allow him to review. At issue have been the lawyer licensing fees collected by two panels which oversee attorney registration and discipline. The justices contend those monies are not public funds, largely because they are not appropriated. Indeed, they ruled that way in disposing of a suit brought by one of their appointees to force Cronson to do an audit under their terms.

While that procedure appeared about as unbiased as asking Cubs' manager Don Zimmer to work home plate for the National League playoffs, the resulting court order obligated Cronson to relent or face a contempt citation. Even the partial audit covering only appropriated funds disclosed findings that would have been embarrassing for a mom-and-pop grocery store, much less for a state judicial system. In his report, which covered the two years ending June 30, 1987, Cronson said the court violated five state laws by failing to:

  • Obtain approval from the state Central Management Services Department before buying commodities and equipment, as the purchasing act requires.
  • File leases for office space with the secretary of state, as the finance act requires.
  • Record, report and dispose of equipment, fixed assets and other property held by the court system in accord with the property control act.
  • Report financial information to the state comptroller in the way required by the comptroller act.
  • Pay bills for computer costs within the time limits in the prompt payment act.

Besides these legal oversights, Cronson said, the court also fell short in dozens of management areas, including overseeing its employees, handling its finances, keeping track of its books, equipment and other property, and safeguarding its computer systems.

In a harshly worded response, the justices accused Cronson of waging "a vindictive campaign of public criticism of the

November 1989 | Illinois Issues | 8

court." Some shortcomings exist, the justices conceded: "Where the audit report's criticism and recommendations are valid, the court will take corrective action." The eye-opener, though, was the court's assertion that the judiciary does not have to obey the laws the auditor cited because it is an independent branch of government. "The Supreme Court may elect to direct that the judicial branch of government will follow procedures" set out in the disputed laws, "but reserves that determination to the judicial branch," the justices declared.

And while the court later released an "amended" response omitting the bald assertion that the judiciary could exempt itself from certain laws, the new version didn't mean the court was backing off in principle, a spokesman said. Instead, the changes only reflected that under current practice, the justices have chosen to direct the court system to follow procedures consistent with the five laws.

To justify what looks like a bid for sovereign nation status, the justices cited "the fundamental precept" of an independent judiciary and the courts' inherent power to protect their authority. Given the statutes in question, that seems like a bit of rhetorical overkill. No one's asking the court to run its hiring through Gov. James R. Thompson's patronage office, or buy tickets to the next Friends of Michael J. Madigan soiree. Just how dangerous to judicial independence can it be to go through Central Management Services to buy legal pads or No. 2 black pencils, or to fill out the standardized accounting reports?

After more than a dozen years of studying the court's attitude up close and personal, Cronson says he thinks it stems from what he calls the "I guess you don't know who I am" syndrome. "You really do begin to think you're infallible," he said. "There are very few people who are going to let the air out of your balloon." The Supreme Court apparently believes the judicial branch of state government, like the pigs in George Orwell's Animal Farm, is more equal than the executive of the legislative branch. In a democracy, however, voters have the final say. With at least two Supreme Court vacancies to be filled at the 1990 election, the time appears ripe for the rest of us to begin deflating some very large balloons.□

Charles N. Wheeler III is a correspondent in the Springfield Bureau of the Chicago Sun Times.

November 1989 | Illinois Issues | 9

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