(From the December 2011 Issue)
On September 14, 2011, the Circuit Judges in DuPage County unanimously elected Judge Jack Elsner as Chief Judge of the Eighteenth Judicial Circuit, for the term beginning December 5, 2011. With a big smile and a gregarious nature, Elsner broke from his daily call in the Law Division to layout his background leading up to this election, as well as his plans for this judicial circuit.
When asked why he went to law school, Elsner replies, “I was the second of seven kids in my family. I had a favorite uncle who was a lawyer and I wanted to be one too.” So in 1975, after graduating from Lewis University with a degree in Liberal Arts, Elsner enrolled in the Lewis University College of Law in Glen Ellyn (which later became the Northern Illinois University College of Law). He attended Lewis with such DuPage County jurists as Judge Bonnie Wheaton and Judge Rodney Equi, with whom he graduated in 1978, as well as Judges Jane Mitton, Joseph Bongiorno, John Kinsella, Cary Pierce, and Terence Sheen. With a law degree in hand, Elsner notes, “I began my career in the [DuPage County] State’s Attorney’s Office, where I, like most new assistants, was assigned to traffic and misdemeanor matters.” He then went on to serve as an attorney with the Village of Lombard. After municipal service, Elsner entered private practice with James Schirott in the firm of Schirott & Elsner.
“While I was with [Schirott & Elsner], I handled a lot of federal cases – Section 1983 actions and civil immunities cases,” Elsner remarks. During the tenure of DuPage County State’s Attorney James Ryan, Elsner returned to the office as Chief of the Civil Division. Lawyering and civil service are not something new to Elsner, as his wife Rita is also an attorney, serving as Village Attorney for the Village of Schaumburg. When asked why he pursued a career on the bench, Elsner posits, “It seemed to be a natural progression of public service. Having worked in government or with government for most of my career, becoming a judge was the next path for my legal career to follow.”
In March of 1991, Elsner was appointed as an Associate Judge for the Eighteenth Judicial Circuit. He notes, “at the time of the closing of the Reber Street Courthouse, I was the last judge to sit in the courtroom once occupied by Judge Charles Norgle, Sr. The first case I tried as a lawyer was a misdemeanor before Judge Norgle in the very courtroom I would preside over later.” The days of Reber Street are behind us, but Elsner has a certain fondness for those days. He adds, “When I began practicing, the courthouse was smaller. The judges and attorneys were collegial, and often could be found having coffee on the third floor.” Elsner began his judicial career in traffic and then in misdemeanor. During the time period that the current courthouse was dealing with sick building syndrome issues, Elsner was assigned to the courtroom in the jail.
He then had the opportunity to then hear cases in the Domestic Relations Division, where he was assigned for over three and a half years. On his time in the division, Elsner comments, “I liked Domestic Relations because there was a chance to actually resolve dispute. But, the sad fact about Domestic Relations is that these disputes continually arise again.” Handling difficult family disputes can be even more stomach-churning when one of the parties turns to murder, as Judge Elsner faced when a particular divorce case appeared in his courtroom. Because of the nature of that case, little comment could be made, except to note that there are often severe tragedies that occur when families break apart.
In 2000, during his time period in that division, Elsner was appointed as Circuit Judge to fill the vacancy arising from the appointment of Circuit Judge John “Jack” Darrah to the federal bench. In 2002, he was elected by popular vote as Circuit Judge and transferred to the Law Division. Amongst the auto accident, civil damage, and malpractice cases, Elsner has had the chance to hear cases such as personal injuries resulting from an errant golf ball, as well as a condemnation action against a gentlemen’s club in relation to expansion of a public road. Though he praises all of the attorneys who have appeared before him, he notes, “The attorneys in the Law Division are fantastic. They work very hard to make sure the judge[s] are informed and up to date on the case issues. They are professional and prepared.”
But now he moves on to serving as Chief Judge, responsible for the general administration of the Eighteenth Judicial Circuit, from assignment of judges to managing court reporter obligations to working with probation and court services to hearing and dealing with public concerns and questions about the judiciary. Elsner comments on his new duties in a deferential manner, “Going back to Judges Thomas Callum, Robert Kilander, Ann Jorgensen, and Steve Culliton, the past Chief Judges have done great jobs running the courthouse. The Eighteenth Judicial Circuit is the premier circuit in the State of Illinois.” He continues, “The Associate Judges selected are top notch. The elected Circuit Judges serve the public with distinction.”
He has several goals for his term as Chief Judge, and he briefly outlined them as a preview of his State of the Courthouse address coming in January 2012. He states, “My first goal will be to maintain the traditions instituted by past Chief Judges. But I also hope to improve the quality of life and practice for the attorneys who practice in DuPage County, while improving the judicial system for the public and keeping the judiciary at the top of its game.” Two calls in the courthouse have grown so vast that they need a change. One call is the child support/paternity call. Though the call has an expedited portion for the State in Courtroom 4016, the call in Courtroom 2003 will be divided in the next year. Cases involving private attorneys will be heard in Courtroom 2011, while cases involving the State will remain in Courtroom 2003. The other call is the foreclosure and forcible [entry & detainer] call has grown exponentially such that options for the call are being explored. Another idea that Elsner is considering is a Veterans Court, similar to the one handled by Judge Lawrence Flood in Cook County. This call would handle criminal matters for veterans charged with non-violent offenses.
For the lawyers and judges, quality of life is as important as quality of service. Elsner is communicating with other county officials to explore the option of decal parking for the lot immediately adjacent to the Courthouse entrance and the parking garage. The goal would be for attorneys to have the option and opportunity to purchase designated parking spaces in that lot, ensuring quick access to the Courthouse and ease of departure for attorneys to go on to other courthouses or other clients. For judges, Judge Blanche Fawell, with Elsner’s support, has been encouraging Associate Judges to attend seminars, judicial and legal, outside of their respective areas, giving these judges fresh perspectives and opportunities to prepare for work in other divisions. Elsner adds, “I am also looking into blast phone messaging, similar to Wheaton Warrenville South High School, to provide information on a mass scale regarding court closings or other court emergencies.”
In summing up the challenges for his term as Chief Judge, Elsner says, “My biggest challenge will be to not micromanage. We have had and will have excellent judges serving as the Presiding Judges of the divisions of the Courthouse and I have to let them do their jobs.” With the start of his term, Judge Bonnie Wheaton will preside over the Chancery Division, Judge Ron Sutter will preside over the Law Division, Judge Rodney Equi will preside over the Domestic Relations Division, Judge Kathryn Creswell will preside over the Felony Division, and Judge Dan Guerin will preside over the Misdemeanor/Traffic Division. Known for riding his bicycle during the good seasons of the year, Elsner will continue to use that time to think and develop his ideas. The one big change for Elsner this coming term will be that he finally will have a cell phone. Yes, Judge Elsner has managed to avoid that piece of addictive technology for quite some time. Without a twinge of defeatism, Elsner chuckles, “[Judge John] Kinsella is making me get one.”