CHICAGO – As their home building undergoes renovation, Illinois Supreme Court justices convened in Chicago on Tuesday and began their first term away from Springfield in more than 100 years.
The venue change provided an atmosphere that was both different and the same for jurists accustomed to Springfield’s neoclassical building that features elaborate ornamentation and which has stood as the court’s home since 1908.
On Tuesday, judges assembled in a modern Chicago courtroom in a downtown office block.
The switch also saved at least one lawyer who delivered oral arguments Tuesday a seven-hour train ride to Springfield and back. Instead, attorney Benjamin Wolowski simply walked across the street from his Chicago office.
“I could sleep in my own bed last night,” he said later, speaking outside court.
But much of the operation of state’s top judicial authority remained the same, including how justices interrupted Wolowski and other counsel in mid-sentence to pepper them with questions.
In brief remarks to spectators and his six fellow justices as he convened the hearing, Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride stressed the importance of consistency in legal procedures despite the change in locations.
“We are in our temporary home away from home,” he said. “And it’s business as usual.”
Emphasizing that point was the court’s longtime motto emblazoned over a nearby doorway – “Audi Alternam Partum,” which court spokesman Joe Tybor said means in Latin, “Hear the Other Side.”
Wolowski led off arguments Tuesday in a case focused on what constitutes bank-check forgery. Another issue the court is scheduled to hear in coming days is the politically charged one of how much legislators can tinker with retirees’ health benefits.
Badly needed repairs to the Springfield building prompted Tuesday’s first-of-its kind session in Chicago. The Springfield building hasn’t undergone any notable renovations since it was built at a cost of around $450,000.
Renovating cracked walnut pillars and refurbishing historical ceiling paintings, as well as modernizing outdated heating systems and other upgrades is slated to cost the state $12.6 million. Renovation work is expected to take about a year to finish.
“This is the pinnacle of Illinois judiciary, so it should be a showcase for the Illinois people,” said John Lupton, the Springfield-based director of the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission.
Before hearing arguments Tuesday, Kilbride told a reporter that conducting court business in Chicago may help better educate area residents about the state’s third branch. Some schools have inquired about bringing student groups by, Tybor added.
The justices are hearing arguments at the Michael A. Bilandic Building — just across from Gov. Pat Quinn’s Chicago offices. But most core staff remain in Springfield in temporary offices.
Kilbride, who lives in the Quad Cities area in western Illinois, is one of four justices who will stay in Chicago hotels during the term. Others have homes in the Chicago area.
Legislators picked Springfield as the permanent home of the high court in 1897 in part because of its central location meant travel times to the court were reasonable even for lawyers located in far flung corners of the state, Lupton said.
Travel times were an issue for some of the Chicago-bound justices this week.
Asked in a cellphone interview Monday morning about the biggest hassle for him in the move from Springfield to the larger metropolis, Chief Justice Kilbride, referred to the scene outside his car as he neared Chicago on a packed interstate.
“My most immediate problem is, I’m stuck in traffic,” he said. Traffic jams on roads into Springfield, he said, are uncommon.
Follow Michael Tarm at www.twitter.com/mtarm