Today we begin another new feature in our expanding coverage of the Illinois Supreme Court – a regular summary of the news and blog posts about the Court. We’ll run the feature bi-weekly while the Court is in its summer break, and more regularly when the Court resumes its regular terms.
Earlier this month, the Court created the Commission on Access to Justice. The Commission is charged with promoting, facilitating and enhancing "equal access to justice with an emphasis on access to the Illinois civil courts and administrative agencies for all people, particularly the poor and vulnerable." The Court appointed seven judges and attorneys to the Commission, joining four additional members appointed by the Illinois Bar Foundation, the Chicago Bar Foundation, the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois and the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation. Sarah Sutschek reported on the story for The Northwest Herald.
Governor Quinn has signed Public Act 97-688, a bill intended in part to overturn the Court’s 2010 decision in Provena Covenant Medical Center v. The Department of Revenue. There, applying then-existing law, the Court had held that the plaintiff hospital did not provide sufficient free care to qualify for a charitable property tax exemption. The new statute provides that to qualify for the exemption, a hospital must provide free care equal to or greater in value that its property tax liability. Melissa Westphal reported the story in the Rockford Register Star.
Today Supreme Court Rule 243 goes into effect. The rule provides that in civil cases, following the conclusion of questioning by counsel, the court may ask the jurors if they have further questions. Out of the presence of the jury, any juror questions are read to counsel, who have the opportunity to object. Once objections are ruled on, the court asks the questions of the witness. Steve Stout of My Web Times, the online version of The Times of Ottawa, reports that more than half of the states and all the Federal Circuits have similar rules. Stout quotes Chief Justice Kilbride as saying that the rule "enhances juror engagement, juror comprehension and attention to the proceeding and gives jurors a better appreciation for our system of justice."
But the big story of the past two weeks for followers of the Illinois Supreme Court was the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Williams v. Illinois, a case up on certiorari from the Illinois Supreme Court. As explained by Jeffrey Fisher at SCOTUSBlog, Williams took place against a backdrop of recent decisions applying the Confrontation Clause to forensic laboratory reports. In two 5-4 decisions, SCOTUS had held that reports certifying test results are testimonial, and placing the lab supervisor on the stand was not sufficient for confrontation purposes. The Illinois Supreme Court held in Williams that testimonial statements in lab reports could nevertheless come in through an expert witness’ testimony as matter the witness relied on, since such matters are not introduced for the truth of the matter asserted. A fractured U.S. Supreme Court rejected this theory, but nevertheless held that the report in question was not sufficiently "formal" or "solemn" to be testimonial.
James Vicini for Reuters, Adam Liptak at The New York Times, Robert Barnes of The Washington Post, Nina Totenberg of NPR and Jess Bravin at The Wall Street Journal reported on the case. According to Andrew Cohen, writing for The Atlantic, the decision "displayed virtually all the dysfunction the justices’ most vocal and powerful critics ever could realistically contemplate." Professor Douglas Berman of Ohio State called the 98 pages worth of opinions "a bloody mess" at his blog Sentencing Law and Policy. At The Volokh Conspiracy, Professor Eugene Volokh noted the unusual composition of the dissent — Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Kagan and Scalia. At the ACS Blog, Professor Brandon Garrett argued that Williams "called for a straightforward application of the Court’s recent [Confrontation] precedents," and concluded that the majority’s refusal to find a Confrontation violation would lead to more wrongful convictions and forensic scandals unless judges strictly ensure access to discovery and exercise their gatekeeping responsibilities over expert evidence. At The Confrontation Blog, Professor Richard D. Friedman noted indications in the opinions that the result would have been different if the lab report had been certified or the case tried to a jury, and concluded that Williams might ultimately have limited impact on Confrontation Clause law. Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, writing for the Crime and Consequences Blog, agreed that because of the three-way split in the Court, Williams had left the state of Confrontation Clause law unclear.