I think that families in crisis and divorce are probably most in need of the best that we can do for them. —
Judge Rod Equi
Judge Rodney Equi presides over the domestic relations division of the 18th Judicial Circuit from his courtroom in Room 3003 of the Judicial Complex on County Farm Road. He has served the county since being appointed in 1992 as Associate Judge and elected to Circuit Judge status in 1998. He has been the Presiding Judge of the domestic relations division since 1999 for all but a year and a half. There is some irony to his present position because, he confesses, when he began his practice he did not enjoy family law and avoided it altogether. As he confided during our recent interview however, he is in this particular division at his request and, if possible, intends n staying put.
Growing up Italian
Rod Equi knew "from the time I was five years old" that he wanted to be a lawyer. A first generation Italian-American born in Chicago in 1948, Judge Equi spoke Italian before he learned English. His family owned Piccolo Mondo, the restaurant where he worked throughout high school, college, and until matriculation in law school: so much in fact that he now recalls not being able to enjoy a New Year’s Eve celebration as a guest until age 30. "The restaurant was open six days a week and closed on Mondays," and holidays were among the busiest times for his family: "It is very hard if you want to have any kind of a family life."
Education Came First
Judge Equi worked hard in his academic life, attending Catholic institutions from grade school to law school. As an undergraduate at DePaul University he majored in political science, and at Lewis University College of Law, later part of Northern Illinois University, he earned his JD. The Judge is keenly aware of the pedigree of Northern’s law school too, pointing out that while "there can’t be more than 600 graduates" from that institution they include Judges Wheaton, Elsner, Pierce, and others.
Judge Equi feels he belongs in the domestic relations division, and confesses to getting a great deal of satisfaction from his work. As he puts it, "I think you can really help people here." But his desire to help is tempered with the knowledge that many people only get to see a small part of the justice system and often go away with skewed notions of how it works. He would counsel both judges and lawyers to be vigilant about helping people who come into the system through high-volume divisions such as traffic or domestic relations where the system often takes precedence over the parties. As he puts it:
The public forms its opinions about what we do [here]. Over and above that, I think that families in crisis and divorce are probably most in need of the best that we can do for them.... So when you’re dealing with custody and deciding who’s going to have the kids and how much money they are going to have for the rest of their lives and where they are going to live¼ it’s important and for me [helping them] is personally satisfying.... I really like to think that I can help people at least in some measure by being here.
Despite such noble ideas the Judge is aware that domestic relations practice has become more contentious and is "concerned that we are presiding over people squandering much of their financial and emotional future." Yet he points out that a number of programs are available to asset litigants such as collaborative divorce, mediation, our own DuPage County conciliation program, and the court-mandated evaluation process. All avenues for litigants who seek a non-confrontational resolution to these kinds of disputes.
Of course Judge Equi is no Pollyanna — he is aware that the relationships between many former spouses, parents, and children "[will] never be repaired or rebuilt." With that in mind, he favors decisive action and has earned a reputation for keeping the momentum of a case going right through trial, often denying continuances. As the Judge observed, "once the divorce is behind them maybe they will kind of move forward, and if you do it more quickly it will cost less money."
pro se Litigants
The issue of pro se litigants is of special importance to Judge Equi, who puts it bluntly, stating that not only are pro se litigants problematic as a category, but their very number makes them a problem as well. And that number is going up all the time in the domestic relations division. Undaunted, the Judge still advises litigants to seek competent representation and hopes that "everyone understands that they get better representation with a lawyer." Still, the fact is that many appear before him without counsel and they can make a case that much more difficult. Consider this the Judge pointed out:
The appellate courts tell us that we are supposed to apply the same rules of procedure and evidence whether they represent themselves or whether they have an attorney. Clearly, since they are not lawyers that puts them at a significant disadvantage. They file pleadings which are more like stream of consciousness paragraphs about what is going on in their lives or they will give me just [a couple] of words: ‘I want more child support,’ or ‘I don’t agree with the judgment for dissolution of marriage.’ I can throw these people out because they come in with a pleading that is probably subject to being stricken. It doesn’t state a claim for relief - but they would only come back. And they will leave with the opinion of the legal system that they are being denied access to it. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know it’s a problem we need to address.
And according to the Judge pro se litigants fit into one of several types. "There are people out there who aren’t going to have a lawyer because they’ve had a bad experience.... I’ve had a number of people tell me ‘my lawyer didn’t do anything for me so I might as well do it myself,’ – and those are problems." And then there are those who "got into some program where they can do it themselves or they have gotten some forms somewhere and they come in." Many people simply cannot afford representation. For example, if a mother is in need of an increase in child support or needs to collect back support that she can go to the State’s Attorney’s Office. But the wait is "nine months, maybe more" he laments. "They can’t wait nine months so they try to do it themselves - and that creates all kinds of problems." That kind of observation sparked heated discussion among judges and members of the bar resulting in formation of the so-called "Modest Means Panel" through which lawyers agree to take cases at a reduced rate. "We’ll see how that works out," the Judge says. "[The issue] is something that we will have to keep working on."
Overall however, the Judge laments that litigation "is becoming a rich person’s sport or pastime." He points out that quite often when a person walks into a lawyer’s office seeking representation the initial retainer is as much as $2,500 or $5,000. If people cannot afford such a retainer they are forced to represent themselves, and it is the process that suffers. If the judge chooses to throw out their ill-formed pleadings then those litigants just cannot present their issues and are effectively denied an opportunity to be heard. "What we are really doing is eliminating their access to the legal system and I don’t think we can do that either. There has to be a middle ground. That’s one of the things I struggle with."
The Challenge Ahead
Judge Equi sees the increasing volume of cases as the primary challenge for domestic relations:
divorce-the filings themselves-are not increasing and perhaps even decreasing a little, but the problem is this huge pipeline: every case is a potential post-decree case. It’s kind of a geometric progression. If there are 3,000 cases filed a year then every two years there are 6,000 potential post-decree cases. At the end of four years there are 12,000 potential post-decree cases. [I]n addition to current filings there will be petitions to increase child support, change in custody, extend maintenance, [and] terminate maintenance. Even with the population in DuPage holding steady and the number of new filings staying fairly constant from one year to the next, the potential for post-decree cases will increase forever.
Courtroom Do’s and Don’ts
"I’m pretty patient with most of the usual issues," Judge Equi said, "I understand lawyers cannot be in two places.... I’m not going to get crazy if you’re not on time; it’s nice [however] if some time close to [when the case is scheduled] you at least jump in and say ‘I’m somewhere else.’" His rules are pretty much standard, he said. Although, if any one thing is his pet peeve, it is preparedness:
"I probably countenance unprepared [attorneys] less well then some others... I get more upset with people who are obviously unprepared.... [I] ask the questions that I want to know the answers to, even at status [calls], and my questions are always the same: Are there minor children? Are there any problems with parenting issues in a pre-decree case that need to be addressed? Do I need to send the parties to mediation or evaluation?" Judge Equi said that even if you are an attorney covering a case for a colleague you had best know the answers to his typical questions. "When somebody comes in and says, ‘Judge, it’s not my case,’ ¼ that typically doesn’t sit well with me." He relates that he asks these questions because he feels an obligation to the parties to keep the case moving.
"One of my efforts of trying to help these people out is to do whatever I can to make sure the case is done in a reasonable amount of time and, therefore, at a reasonable cost," he said, "And people who practice in front of me should know that." Judge Equi said that he expects trials to commence on the dates scheduled. He said that he doesn’t generally grant continuances and wants people to know that. He said that, "Recognize that with my trial dates¼ I like to have some integrity."
Technology in the Courtroom
I’m not the most high-tech guy in the world, but I’ve made an effort to teach myself and I think there’s a lot that technology offers us.... I sit on my bench and I can call up any file and read the documents that are in that file because they have all been imaged by the clerk’s system.... We have available - and most judges use it - Westlaw for all of us.... Certainly I use FinPlan and I hope most of the judges use FinPlan to help them calculate child support or maintenance or the relationship between the two or unallocated support.
Is the practice of family law moving toward a paperless practice? Judge Equi answered directly, "sure, but we’ve been doing that forever." Commenting on that and addressing the issue of presenting to him a trial book of documents on a disk the judge had the following to say: "Absolutely. I think that would be marvelous. I’d do it tomorrow." He said that a number of lawyers currently give him their closing arguments, their exhibits, or their proposed judgments on disk, and that he is in favor of its use. "I don’t have any quarrel with that at all," he encouraged.
The judge admitted that he is already heavily dependent on current technology. "I keep [my] calendar on the computer; I don’t keep it on paper anymore.... I have no book that tells me when my trials are - I have it in my computer." Judge Equi said that he takes his laptop with him often, and that he prepares for the trial advocacy class that he teaches at Northern Illinois University College of Law by working on Power Point presentations for his class. Power Point "helps me in making the presentation [and] it helps everybody keep more focused on the presentation." Regarding the continued use of technology in his courtroom he said, "the sky is the limit as far as I’m concerned."
Hobbies, Interests, and Pro Wrestling of course
Judge Equi told us that when it comes to hobbies, he is nearly hobbieless. "I tried to learn how to play golf a couple of years ago and it was too hard, took too long, and I wasn’t good enough at it," he said. He admitted, however, that he does have a few favorites. His favorite movie? The Godfather. His favorite television show? Boston Legal. Even before we asked the question, we knew the answer to the next question. When asked if he had a favorite spectator sport, Judge Equi’s eyes opened wide and he smiled. "I’m a pro wrestling fan," he stated. "I think it’s great drama." We couldn’t help but ask the judge if, when he says that ‘it’s drama,’ he acknowledges that professional wrestling is scripted. "Of course it is," he conceded, "I don’t believe it’s real.... I haven’t believed it was real since I was eight years old.... I understand that they are actors, but some of the things they do require a great deal of athletic ability." His favorite wrestler is "The Rock." But, he said, "I don’t know that I root for anybody... I just watch." Judge Equi and his wife Catherine married in 1976, and they have two daughters, Marianne and Diane.
Next month, new Associate Judge, Hon. Linda E. Davenport