Misdemeanor and Traffic Divisions - 
Judge Thomas J. Riggs

(From the November 2010 Issue)

Judge Thomas J. Riggs currently presides over the Misdemeanor and Traffic Divisions of the Eighteenth Judicial Circuit.  Riggs received his J.D. from DePaul University College of Law.  He then spent time as an assistant state’s attorney while also teaching criminal law and procedure at Triton College. In 1973, he entered private practice, while he also served as a part-time Public Defender.  In those days, Riggs said, “attorneys serving in those positions had a great opportunity to build their practices while earning a stable income from their work as public defenders.”  Riggs eventually settled down to working a solo practitioner in Addison, Illinois until he was appointed to the bench in  December, 1995.  Riggs was appointed Associate Judge along with some other then-new faces to the DuPage judiciary, Judge Kathryn E. Creswell, Judge Patrick J. Leston, Judge Jane Mitton, and Judge Terence M. Sheen. 

In July 2008, Riggs was appointed Circuit Judge to fill the vacancy left by the retirement of Judge Robert Kilander.  With the election of Chief Judge Stephen J. Culliton, Riggs was named Presiding Judge of the Misdemeanor and Traffic Divisions.  In addition to serving as the Presiding Judge of the these divisions, Riggs currently supervises the Juvenile Division, where he regularly hears cases involving delinquent minors, abused and neglected minors, addicted minors, and truant minors.  The Juvenile Division requires a touch of social worker and a strong stomach for the ills of society. This is Riggs’ third tour in the Juvenile Division.
Unlike Federal Court where judges hear a mix of civil and criminal cases, Riggs said when we recently met with him for this interview, and unlike DuPage County which maintained a similar system until roughly 20 years ago, DuPage judges are assigned to divisions in which they preside over similar types of cases not unlike the way attorneys practice law.  “The law has become more compartmentalized, making it very difficult to be a general practitioner,” Riggs said, and the courthouse he works in now is likewise compartmentalized.

Running the division, Riggs said, involves managing fifteen judges, four of whom sit in the traffic field courts in DuPage County.  The field courts handle a vast number of traffic matters, as well as local prosecutions for ordinance violations and municipal matters.  In the main courthouse, the Misdemeanor Division has specialized courtrooms,

in addition to the general misdemeanor courtrooms.  These courtrooms include an order of protection courtroom, a domestic violence courtroom, three DUI courtrooms, and a courtroom devoted to Drug Court and MICAP (Mental Illness Court Alternative Program).  One judge hears these sensitive family matters, with assistant state’s attorneys and assistant public defenders who regularly keep abreast of the specific changes in domestic violence.   The same holds true for the DUI courtrooms.  

While this specialization may provide for a more consistent administration of justice, it can lead to monotony and stress for the judges in these calls.  Riggs said he believes that the judges in his division, as well as his other colleagues on the bench, are terrific in handling the many challenges that come with such work. “Staffing the calls is always a concern,” Riggs remarked, “as judges have vacations, family matters, and education conferences to attend.  Each judge in these division handles these occurrences with very few problems for the division.”  He is quick to point out that one person who makes the division work well, and upon whom he certainly relies, is Marla Baney, the division secretary. Riggs said, “Marla has been there forever and she really runs the show and makes our jobs easier.”  

Orders of Protection and domestic violence are a large part of the Misdemeanor Division, and involve an area of law that reaches into other divisions, such as the Domestic Relations and Chancery Divisions.  Riggs said he believes the new online order of protection system  has helped improve the handling of such matters. Computer access to the information for judges has also allowed for faster sharing of information.  Riggs told us he believes that “online access to information is crucial to the misdemeanor judges, who are tasked with making split second decisions.”

One of the biggest challenges facing the division, according to Riggs, is the increasing volume of cases.   Riggs noted that “having a floating judge is essential” to handling this increasing volume and that communication is also imperative . One of Riggs’ goals for his tenure has been to foster better communication by holding regular meetings with division judges to discuss changes in the law, concerns about court calls, and suggestions for improving the division. Striving to create a more team-like environment, Riggs encourages the judges to communicate with each other on caseload issues, as well as on recent case law and statutory changes.

Ancillary departments in the courthouse have also been an integral part of the efficiency of these divisions, Riggs said.   He describes the DuPage County Department of Probation and Court Services, an arm of the judiciary, as being “staffed with terrific, well-trained, and professional officers.”  The countless grants for new programs and improvements to existing programs have likewise contributed to what he described as a “cutting edge” department.  He added that the judges, in making their decisions, rely on the work and reports of probation officers.  These probation officers go out into the world and gather needed facts so the court can make the right kind of decision for each defendant. 

The Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court is another critical part of the court system, he said.  Judges in the Misdemeanor Division, as well as every other division, rely on the clerk’s record keeping in order to keep cases on a timely track.  Another ancillary arm of the court is the Victim Impact Panel.  This is often part of the sentencing order, whereby a defendant is ordered to attend a panel where victims of certain crimes tell their stories of how the crimes affected their lives.   Supporting this panel wholeheartedly, Riggs said, “[the Panel] really brings home to the perpetrators the human element, the real cost of the crime, be it anger, or a loss of security, or the pain of violence to their lives every day.”

Riggs sat as a judge in almost every division.   He said that “each division, I think, is devoted to the fair and equal administration of justice.  But each division has its nuances as well.”  He said that the Chancery Division handles some thorny matters, but that the questions raised are still very much like the “law exam questions we all faced in law school.”  In the Juvenile Division, on the other hand, Riggs said he found there was “less paper and motions to deal with” but “more social work and more of a social service aspects to the decision-making process.”  Riggs described the Domestic Relations Division as more contentious than any other division, requiring a whole lot of math and careful thought in coming to decisions to divide a marriage and move parties on with their lives.  Lastly, in the Misdemeanor Division, he said, there are often “unique pre-trial issues involving searches and seizures and confessions that require thought and consideration in coming to a decision.”

In addition to serving as Presiding Judge of the Misdemeanor Division, Riggs serves as the Supervising Judge of the Juvenile Division, which is part of the Domestic Relations Division.  In this capacity, he regularly meets with the participants of the juvenile justice system, which includes state’s attorneys, public defenders, DCFS, probation officers, and the judges.  “Information sharing and updates to system needs” he said, provides for an effective juvenile justice system.  His goal for juvenile court improvement, he said, “relies on building support and growth for the families that have entered the system.”  The Juvenile Division hears matters of juvenile delinquency, matters involving abused and neglected minors, truancy matters, and matters involving addicted minors. 

In three tours in the Juvenile Division, Riggs said he has seen some recent changes.  “In delinquency matters,” he said, “I have consistently seen more delinquent acts committed by girls and more acts of violence committed by girls.”   As to abuse and neglect matters, he said, he has seen a “difficult conundrum” caused by “a rise in drug abuse among parents and a lack of state funds to get these parents back on the right track.”  

In December 2010, Riggs will retire from the bench, after serving the judiciary for fifteen years.  Upon retirement, some judges return to private practice, while some venture off to far away places.   Riggs has no set plan after retirement, except to take it easy.   He has the holidays and grandchildren’s birthdays to look forward to right away.  After that, he said, “the future is open.”   He may return to teaching law classes,[1] but has not ruled out returning to the classroom himself.   Riggs said he is “thinking about returning to school to take some business-related courses.”  

Riggs’ advice for his successor is to keep the doors of communication open and to foster the team mentality of the division.   For his successor in the Juvenile Division, he suggested that judge maintain a good rapport with the members of the system and to stay abreast of the changing dynamics of families in DuPage County. □

[1] He also briefly taught Fifth Grade in Plainfield, Illinois once upon a time but did not say anything about getting back into that area of teaching.