Summary Review of Court Systems -
Structure of Civil Courts
Illinois has a three-tiered court system consisting of the circuit courts, the Appellate Court, and the Supreme Court. The circuit courts are courts of original jurisdiction and are divided into twenty-four circuits, spread out by clearly defined geographical boundaries. Each circuit is located in one of five appellate court districts. Cases decided in the circuit courts may be appealed to the appellate court in the district where the circuit court sits, or in certain circumstances, directly to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court may review appellate court decisions at its discretion. The Supreme Court is the court of last resort.
Basis of Jurisdiction
Under Section 9 of the Illinois Constitution, the circuit courts are vested with original jurisdiction to decide all justiciable matters, except matters relating to redistricting of the General Assembly and the ability of the Governor to serve or resume office. Circuit courts are also vested with the power to review administrative action as provided by law.
Judicial circuits may serve one or more counties and must have one circuit court with such number of circuit court judges as provided by law. Unless otherwise provided by law, there must be at least one circuit court judge from each county within the judicial circuit.
Circuit court judges in each circuit select a chief judge by secret ballot. The Chief Judge has general administrative authority over his/her court, including authority to provide for divisions, general or specialized.
The Circuit Court of Cook County is the largest of the 24 circuits in Illinois and one of the largest unified court systems in the world. It consists of 400 judges who serve the approximately 5.2 million residents of Cook County, which encompasses the City of Chicago and its 126 surrounding suburbs.
While each of the 24 circuits has its own administrative rules pursuant to the discretion vested to the Chief Judge of each circuit court, this article will focus on the administration of the Circuit Court of Cook County.
The approximately 400 judges of the Circuit Court of Cook County are assigned throughout ten divisions and six geographic districts. The Chief Judge appoints a presiding judge to head each division and district. The largest of the six districts is the First Municipal District, which encompasses the City of Chicago.
The Circuit Court of Cook County is organized into three functional departments: County, Municipal and Juvenile Justice and Child Protection.
In addition to housing, eviction proceedings, misdemeanor proceedings, licenses and other matters, the First Municipal District hears civil suits for damages up to $30,000. However, the Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Municipal Districts hear civil suits for damages up to $100,000. Civil suits concerning damages of $30,000 are subject to mandatory arbitration.
The County Department is divided into eight divisions: Chancery, County, Criminal, Domestic Relations, Domestic Violence, Elder Law and Miscellaneous Remedies, Law and Probate. The Law Division hears civil suits for recovery of monetary damages in excess of $30,000 in Chicago and in excess of $100,000 in the five suburban municipal districts.
The Law Division contains a separate Commercial Calendar Section, which hears cases based upon theories of tort, contract or otherwise, that involve a commercial relationship between the parties. Lawsuits that originate in the Motions Calendar may be reassigned to the Commercial Calendar Section upon the submission of a timely and valid motion by one of the parties.
Motions Calendar judges handle pre-trial case management but do not preside over trials. When cases on the Motions Calendars are ready for trial they are reassigned to a Trial Judge. Conversely, the Commercial Calendar consists of eight judges, each of whom presides over every aspect of a lawsuit from filing and case management through trial.
Cases assigned to the Commercial Calendar with damages of less than $75,000 are subject to mandatory arbitration. Parties who participate in the arbitration in good faith are not bound to accept an arbitration award, however, a rejection must be made within seven business days after receiving the notice of award. Additionally, if a party rejects an arbitration award and fails to obtain a better result at trial, the party rejecting the award must pay the other party’s reasonable legal fees incurred in connection with the arbitration, which must be submitted by both parties at the arbitration hearing.
Circuit court judges provide pre-trial settlement services to litigants without charge, subject to their availability and within their discretion. Additionally, matters may be referred to private mediation pursuant to agreement between the parties.
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