by Anna Ferraro
Down at the municipal building, the second and fourth Thursday afternoons of the month are quite busy. If you were to visit the city council chambers on one of those days, you’d be greeted by an impressive docket, a full house, and thankfully, a high level of efficiency – mainly presided over by Judge Amy Jackson, of Rammelkamp Bradney, P.C.
The Jacksonville Municipal Court was founded in 2006, during Ron Tendick’s term as mayor. An outgrowth of home rule, the municipal court was one way to streamline the number of cases going through circuit court that directly related to city ordinances.
Jackson shares, “I worked with the pollution control board before joining Rammelkamp Bradney. Because of that, Mayor Tendick knew that I had years of experience as a hearing officer.” Tendick selected Jackson and Andy Ezard, city clerk at the time, to travel to Edwardsville and observe their municipal court proceedings in early 2006. Jackson shares, “What we observed there we brought back and got things off the ground here in Jacksonville.”
Their first official docket was June 22, 2006. That day, there were four cases on the docket. Jackson wrote the court orders out by hand off of a paper docket. Eleven years later, in the fall of 2017, the court tried a total of 78 cases in just one afternoon. To keep up with the courtroom traffic, the court now uses an electronic docket management system. Jackson stated satisfactorily, “I can go right into the docket, print out the date, and the court orders. … The computerization helps us manage the increasing numbers that we ‘re seeing in court.”
In addition to Jackson’s work, many other people play very key roles. To name just a few, Jackson shares, “Sarah Bergschneider does the lion’s share of getting things done behind the scenes. She puts a lot of work into the administration the day of court.” There is always a police officer in attendance as well, as a bailiff. Jackson commented, “That’s very important in some cases – when the people are agitated – it’s helpful to have someone there to maintain order in the court.” The Jacksonville city inspectors and code enforcement officers also play a big part in the cases brought to court. Jackson explained, “They’re the ones out in the community, responding to complaints. It’s not always an easy fix.” In addition, there’s Tom Veith, the Assistant City Attorney, and a partner at Bellatti, Fay, Bellatti & Beard, LLP, who prosecutes many of the cases for the city, summing up what Jackson called a “group process.”
Some weeks, about a third of the cases the court tries are juvenile cases. On these, Jackson takes a special, and even a motherly interest. She shares, “It’s really important that we really help those young people that are struggling and not staying in school. But we realize that there are lots of reasons why young people don’t go to school. We’ve recently joined up with Midwest Youth Services to get the young people in counseling and help them turn their lives around. Overall, we’re trying to think out of the box and help them find resolutions that are beneficial in the long-term. If we keep kids in school in and graduate, they’re more likely to become productive citizens.”
Jackson continued, “Craig Wright has been very instrumental in helping with the juvenile docket – and he takes his job very seriously.” And that’s not always easy on juvenile cases. For example, Jackson shared, “One very angry kid took his court order and threw it back in [my] face. But then, after his court appearance, he started working with Midwest, got his GED, and got a job. He came back to court and was smiling. I don’t really know if that young man’s life would have been had we not been able to intervene and give him positive enforcement and direction.”
Juveniles aren’t the only ones benefitting from the municipal court. Jackson shared, “We’ve seen a really good response to municipal court from the police department. They appreciate how quickly we can get cases turned around and brought to a final result.”
It’s not always positive, though. Jackson admitted, “A lot of folks in town don’t realize that there is a lot of need in our community. There are a lot of individuals that don’t have basic necessities of life. We’ve seen through property maintenance some living conditions that are deplorable. Where you look at photographs, and it’s hard to imagine that people are living in this situation. Those are issues that are really hard to address – especially where there aren’t financial means. Sometimes we can work through the property owner, and sometimes we can’t. Those are really difficult cases. The success is not as obvious. But you hope that you’re improving the way these individuals are living.”
Tom Veith, the aforementioned attorney that prosecutes many of the cases in municipal court, has decades of experience to back his work there. Going straight from college to law school, he worked for a little over a year in Massachusetts before deciding that he wanted to be back with family and friends in Midwest. Taking the bar exam in Illinois in 1991, he’s been licensed and working with Bellatti & Beard, LLP, ever since. He spoke highly of Jackson’s skill in municipal court, saying, “When I go into a courtroom, even if I lose the case, I want to know that the judge listened to me, treated me fairly, gave my argument consideration. Even if they ruled against me, I want to be able to understand why.” In municipal court, Veith feels that he and the defendants get that chance.
That feeling of fairness continues outside of the courtroom, too. Veith stated, “There are people that, even though they have an ordinance violation, they’ve been satisfied that we are willing to work with them on an individual basis. We as the city accomplish our purpose, and part of that is making it workable for them. Everybody should find that if they continue making progress on their court orders, then the city continues to work with them. …. The communication process is important for citizens on all cases, and holding up their end of the bargain, than we can work with them.”
Veith concluded his comments by sharing, “I really like to help people. Although I don’t have all the answers, I really like to help people solve their problems. [As an attorney], I love the process of working through cases, finding resolution, and seeing the relief on your clients’ face when you find resolution for them.” He added, “Serving as the assistant city attorney has become the most enjoyable part of my practice because I enjoy the people I work with – police, inspectors, department heads, all incredible people to work with – they’re supportive, cooperative, professional.” In regards to the public opinion of municipal court, Veith stated, “I would like people to think that it’s a more relaxed setting that they can come in, explain their position, and feel like they’ve had an opportunity to be heard and treated fairly. And even if the result isn’t in their favor, the hearing officer gave them that opportunity – Judge Jackson is extremely professional, and bends over backwards to make certain that individuals are given an opportunity to state their case in court.”
Overall, Jackson stated, “I hope people see court as a positive thing for the city. It allows ordinance violations to be addressed efficiently. It brings revenue into the city for the fines that are addressed. I would also hope that people would see this as a place where, if a person is accused of an ordinance violation, people present their evidence and the court presents theirs. I hope people see this process as a fair process. And even when decisions go against a particular individual, even though they may not agree with the decision, they would realize that the decision is based on whatever the facts are that are presented. It’s not personal. It doesn’t matter who any one is. It’s just based on the information that’s present at the time.”
In the long-term, Jackson quantified that municipal court is not something that she wants to grow – in a numbers standpoint. She said that good growth for them would mean that the number of their cases on the docket would go down. She said, “I want to see cases get resolved. If we are effective, then the numbers will probably go down.”
In conclusion, Jackson and Veith put out an invitation for Jacksonville residents to come and observe proceedings. Court is open to the public, and the schedule of court is published on the city of Jacksonville’s webpage. Court usually takes place on the 2nd and 4th Thursday of each month from 1:30pm-4: 30pm in the city council chambers.