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Law 792-A: Advanced Legal Research: Illinois: Class 2: Illinois Court System

This is guide to support an advanced legal research course which focuses on Illinois legal research.

Illinois Courts

In this unit we will be discussing the Illinois court system.

 

This includes understanding (1) how to find, use, and cite to Illinois case law authority; (2) how to search Illinois court websites for judicial opinions and other important information; (3) how to search dockets in Illinois; and, (4) how to find court rules.

 

When reviewing this content try to think about how some of these sources might be more beneficial that using your traditional go-to resources, like Westlaw Edge and Lexis Advance. Consider what types of information you may be able to find that is duplicative with what is in the larger commercial databases, as well as what information might be outside the scope of the "big three" (Westlaw Edge, Lexis Advance, and Bloomberg Law).

Illinois Court Websites

Court web portals can provide lawyers and legal researchers with enormous amounts of valuable information from practical information such as phone numbers and addresses to local court rules and published opinions. 

 

The Illinois Supreme Court, along with the Illinois Appeals Court (the unified intermediate appellate court in Illinois, which is administratively divided into five districts), have a uniform appearance through the Illinois court system portal. You can also use this portal to access some information about the Illinois Circuit Courts (the individual trial courts in Illinois, divided into 23 numbered circuits that serve a varying number of counties and one unnumbered circuit serving Cook County), as well as to locate individual circuit court websites.

 

The Illinois Courts website, www.illinoiscourts.gov, is a bit cumbersome and can be difficult to navigate, but it has plenty of very useful information. The site will provide users with information regarding electronic filing systems and implementation through the Illinois court system. In addition, you can find a plethora of general information including court filings, written resources, and recordings of Illinois oral arguments. A few of these features- namely court dockets, court rules, and court opinions- will be addressed in separate boxes on this LibGuide.

 

​Illinois Circuit Courts also have their own web presences, usually associated with the county website. These websites can vary greatly in terms of esthetic appeal, usability, and depth of information. It is important to familiarize yourself with the court websites for your local jurisdiction(s) in order to be able to access what information is available, as well as what information is not accessible, through your local court.

Court Rules

In addition to the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure and the Illinois Code of Criminal Procedure, lawyers practicing in Illinois must always look to the relevant local rules. These rules can be found in several places. The first place to look should always be the website for the court itself. This is the best location because the rules are coming directly from an authenticated source. Additionally, rules posted on the court website can be accessed for free. The rules for the Illinois Supreme Court, as well as the five divisions of the Illinois Appellate Court, can be located on the Illinois Courts website. Rules of the Illinois Circuit Courts will be located on the individual courts' websites.

Docket Searching

Court dockets are normally public records and can be very helpful for legal research. Each court has its own system for making their dockets available. In some cases, dockets are only available via in person or written requests, though this is becoming exceedingly rare. In most circumstances, dockets are electronically available.

Docket searching allows you to:

  • Look at the docket sheet and, in some cases, read the full-text versions of documents that have been filed by the court and/or the parties to actions. Some of these full-text documents are also available in the Illinois state material available through Westlaw Edge and Lexis+.
  • Examine docket entries to check the case status and note pending actions
  • Determine the disposition in a matter not otherwise reported
  • Research a person or entity's interactions with the legal system

Typically, you will need to find the docket searching mechanism directly through the court's webpage. A large number of Illinois counties, however, use Judici for their records system, although Champaign County and the Chicagoland counties are not among them (Illinois State Dockets in Westlaw Edge, linked below, covers Champaign County and some of the Chicagoland counties). Bloomberg Law also has a robust searching mechanism for some states, including Illinois, as well as for all federal courts.

The links for the Judici and Bloomberg Law docket portals, as well as few example individual court dockets, are below.

Jury Verdicts

Since the opinions of the Illinois Circuit Courts are not readily available, and often require visiting the respective county courthouse if an Circuit Court opinion is even available at all, civil jury verdicts and settlements are often the best sources for Illinois attorneys to research what has happened at the state trial level. 

Public Domain Citation

Below are materials submitted by the Illinois Supreme Court, as well as a video tutorial created by The John Marshall Law School, that describe the public domain citation format adopted in 2011 for official versions of Illinois Supreme and Appellate Court decisions.

Illinois Print Digest and Reporters (Illinois Alcove)

Illinois Court Structure

In Illinois, the court system has three tiers: the Illinois Supreme Court (the state's court of final determination); the Illinois Appellate Court (the state's unified intermediate appellate court, administratively divided into five districts), and the Illinois Circuit Courts (the state's individual trial courts of original jurisdiction, divided into 23 numbered circuits serving a varying numbers of counties and one unnumbered circuit serving Cook County).

Most claims originate in on of the 24 Illinois Circuit Courts. Each judicial circuit represents one or more of Illinois' 102 counties. Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, and Will counties (all in Chicagoland) each have its own single judicial circuit. The remaining 18 circuits are comprised of between two (2) and 12 counties each.

In Illinois, all litigants have an intermediary right of appeal. There are five appellate districts in Illinois, which together comprise the unified Illinois Appellate Court:

  • The First Appellate District (in green below) meets in Chicago.
  • ​The Second Appellate District (in orange below) meets in Elgin. 
  • The Third Appellate District (in blue below) meets in Ottawa. 
  • The Fourth Appellate District (in beige below) meets in Springfield.
  • The Fifth Appellate District (in red below) meets in Mt. Vernon.

Champaign County is in the Fourth Appellate District. The First Appellate District itself has six administrative divisions, but each of the other four districts have only a single division. Since the Illinois Appellate Court is unified, the decisions of each of the five districts are normally treated as coming from one unified source, and together are mandatory or binding on each of the Illinois Circuit Courts. In the relatively rare case of a district split over the same or similar issues, however, the assigned district will be solely mandatory or binding over the circuit courts within that district. Another exception to the normal practice is that Illinois Appellate Court decisions issued prior to the Illinois Courts Act of 1935 are not mandatory or binding, but only persuasive on the Illinois Circuit Courts.

In Illinois, the court of final determination is called the Illinois Supreme Court. The Court (a capital "C" in the word court is normally used for a respective jurisdiction's court of final determination) has limited original jurisdiction and has final appellate jurisdiction. It has mandatory jurisdiction in capital cases and cases where the constitutionality of laws has been called into question, and discretionary jurisdiction for cases on appeal from the Illinois Appellate Court. The Court, along with the legislature, promulgates rules for all the courts within the state. The Court also administers professional discipline through the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Committee (ARDC) and governs initial licensing through the Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar. 

As you will recall from your Civil Procedure course, U.S. federal courts will generally apply state law if the federal action is based on the court's diversity jurisdiction. Thus, if an action in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois is based on the diversity of the parties (one party from Illinois; one party from Indiana, for example), then Illinois state law and Illinois' choice of law rules will normally apply.

Finally, Illinois state courts are not bound to follow the decisions of federal courts, even the U.S. Supreme Court, unless the decision is from the U.S. Supreme Court itself and is rooted in the federal preemption of conflicting state law, as required by the U.S. Constitution.

Maps of the Illinois Appellate Court and Illinois Circuit Courts

 

Illinois map of state court jurisdictions

Illinois Case Law

Historically, Illinois cases were published in bound reporters. Even if you only ever look at electronic court opinions, the traditional citation methods (such as Bluebook) are based off our classic system of print case reporters.

You can still find printed Illinois case decisions in commercial bound reporters such as the North Eastern Reporter, a West regional reporter, and West's Illinois Decisions. In 2011, however, the Illinois Supreme Court announced it would no longer publish Illinois Reports, the state's official reporter for Illinois Supreme Court and Illinois Appellate Court decisions. This means that all decisions of these courts after July 1, 2011 are officially published electronically on the courts' respective website.

Because electronic court decisions do not have page numbers, they require a different method of citation. Illinois has officially adopted a public domain citation method, used now by many states. Illinois attorneys must be familiar with citing to, and recognizing citations from, electronically published state decisions. When looking to retrieve court opinions on the Illinois Courts website, the public domain citation is most effective. [See the Public Domain Citation box below for more on how this citation method works.]

This table explains where to find Illinois court decisions, as well as the recognized abbreviations for the reporters.