The justice system, Martin V. Sinclair Jr. said, “is the foundation of a civil society.”
“The courts serve a fundamental and constitutional role in our society to ameliorate and resolve disputes,” said Sinclair, the Northern District of Illinois Court Historical Association president and an attorney with Sperling & Slater P.C.
And he said the local federal court and federal judiciary played “a key role in the formation of the Chicagoland area.”
Sinclair is among the lawyers, judges, professors and court personnel pulling out all the stops to celebrate the bicentennial of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
The festivities to mark the court’s bicentennial started in late February. The court’s official 200th birthday was March 3, and festivities will run throughout 2019.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Cole, who serves on the historical association’s board of directors, made updates to a report on the history of the court he wrote for its 190th anniversary a decade ago.
The court started an oral history series interviewing judges, beginning Feb. 27 with U.S. District Judge Marvin E. Aspen.
Court personnel and judges gathered in the Dirksen Federal Courthouse lobby on March 1 for a cake-cutting ceremony.
A huge, two-tier Eli’s cheesebake cake was topped with a decorative gavel and block. The side of one tier was inscribed with the anniversary motto, “A Court at the Heart of America,” while the other tier displayed the scales of justice.
Later that day, the court held a program at the Harold Washington Library Center honoring the Northern District’s impact on local and national history.
Chief U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo showed part of a documentary about the court. In the film, judges and lawyers discussed the importance of a judiciary reflecting its community.
It also discussed the biases and stereotypes that women and minorities in the bar and on the bench have faced.
And documentary interviewees talked about the role of the court in society and the importance of the rule of law.
“This court is an equalizer,” Castillo said at the cake-cutting earlier that day. “No one comes into any of our public courtrooms with any kind of special recognition.
“They could be the average citizen suing the highest person in the land and they will get fair treatment,” he said.
Others involved in planning programs for the bicentennial also mentioned the need to educate the public about how the court works.
U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman said she joined the committee that planned the Washington Library event “because of what federal judges are facing across the country now.”
Some commentators have questioned the fairness of the courts and criticized the lack of diversity, Coleman said.
She said she wants the public to know about the wide variety of cases the court addresses and the increasingly diverse group of judges who serve on it.
“I thought it was important that the history of our court was celebrated,” she said. “It’s something I’m proud to be part of.”
In an interview two weeks before the bicentennial events began, U.S. District Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer said “it’s always great to have a reminder” of the court’s part in enforcing the law and protecting rights.
Pallmeyer, the chair of the historical association’s board of directors, has led the planning for the yearlong bicentennial celebration.
“I’m really happy that we have something to celebrate here because we stand for the rule of law and we stand, in a beautiful way, above politics and above the fray,” Pallmeyer said. “And we stand as a calm voice of order and defense of liberty.”
Over the years, Pallmeyer said, the federal court has enforced civil rights statutes, weighed in on business disputes and presided over the criminal trials of such defendants as gangster Al Capone and the organizers of the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention known as the Chicago Seven.
Gretchen Van Dam, the circuit librarian at the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, emphasized the importance of the court’s history.
Highlighting the court’s 200-year history helps people understand “the role the federal courts play in their lives, in their workplaces and in protecting their civil rights and civil liberties,” Van Dam said.
Van Dam, who also serves as the historical association’s vice president and archivist, said visiting the free Northern District of Illinois Court History Museum on Dirksen’s 21st floor is another way the public can learn how the federal court system impacts their lives.
Another program for the court’s 200th birthday was a March 20 panel on “Judicial Firsts: Trailblazers on the Federal Bench.”
The program was moderated by Geraldine Soat Brown, a retired magistrate judge who is now with JAMS.
Panel members included Judge Ilana Diamond Rovner, the first woman appointed to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and U.S. District Judge Edmond E. Chang, the first Asian-American to serve as a judge with lifetime tenure on a federal trial bench in Illinois.
Also serving on the panel was Castillo, the first Latino to serve as Northern Illinois’ top federal trial judge.
About two weeks before the discussion, Castillo announced his last day as chief judge will be June 30. That move clears the way for Pallmeyer to become the court’s first female chief judge.
On April 9, professor Alison LaCroix of the University of Chicago Law School gave a talk about the part Illinois federal courts played in early 19th century debates over the scope of federal power.
Other Continuing Legal Education courses planned for 2019 as part of the anniversary include one on notable pro bono and public interest cases and another on public corruption.
The American Bar Association Division of Public Education will host a one-day Federal Courts Summer Institute for Chicago-area teachers.
Twenty teachers selected to attend the institute at no cost will gather at the Dirksen Building Courthouse on July 26 to learn about the history of Chicago’s federal trial court, the workings of the U.S. judicial system and how to use court cases in their classrooms.
The judges and educators conducting the institute will use the Chicago Seven trial as the launch point for their discussions.
The ABA officials planning the program are Catherine Hawke, associate director of education programs, and Christine Lucianek, manager of education and research.In another project, the trial court is teaming up with IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law to conduct a symposium and put out a law review issue dedicated to the court’s history.
The goal of the project, U.S. District Judge Manish S. Shah said, is “to take a step beyond anecdotal war stories and engage academics in thinking critically about the court’s history and to benefit from academic insights into the court.”
The symposium is tentatively set for the fall, while the law review is expected to come out in the winter of 2019-20. Chicago-Kent professor Christopher W. Schmidt is leading the project.