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La Salle County Circuit Judge R. James Lannon Jr. sat down with the NewsTribune recently to reflect on his brief tenure on the bench.
Lannon, 78, was appointed in March 2011 to replace retired Chief Judge James A. Lanuti on an interim basis. Lannon accepted his appointment from Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride with the understanding that he would be a “caretaker” until a new judge was elected. Mendota Republican Troy Holland won the seat on Nov. 6.
Prior to his appointment, Lannon was a 50-year member of the bar and was managing partner of Herbolsheimer Lannon Henson Duncan in La Salle. He is barred by Supreme Court rules from fully disclosing his post-judicial intents.
How did you enjoy your year and a half on the bench?
I loved it. It’s been very challenging and very, very interesting.
Are you sorry in some ways to see it come to an end?
Very. I knew I would enjoy it, I just didn’t know how much I would enjoy it. It’s amazing how many facets of the law I didn’t run into during my private practice, even though I did almost entirely civil litigation. I’ve learned a lot.
The other day I had to tell a woman she had to get out of her apartment by the end of the month. She said she had no place to go; but the law requires her to get out. So that was no fun. But I’ve also handled a number of adoptions and those are a lot of fun.
Has there been anything that has come as a surprise to you?
What really came as a surprise to me was the number of foreclosures. There are three of us (judges) in the civil division who split the casework, so I get one third of the foreclosures and I think I have somewhere around 370 that I’m handling. It’s been very disconcerting. Plus, the family matters and the civil lawsuits that I’d handled as an attorney — automobile accidents, workplace accidents, things like that — were actually a much smaller portion of the job than I thought it would be.
Were you nervous on your first day on the job?
(Laughs) Judge (Cindy) Raccuglia told me the first time she ever took the bench, she forgot to tell everyone to take a seat and they were still standing. I’ve only done that once. (Laughs) And that was several months in. I looked up and everyone was still standing. No, I wouldn’t say I was nervous; but the adrenaline was flowing.
Do you get to keep the robes?
I get to keep the robes. I will, hereafter, be able to perform marriages in the state of Illinois for the rest of my life. I don’t know that I will, but I have the authority to do so. So I’ll keep my robes for that.
What advice would you give to Judge Holland as he prepares to take your seat?
The most difficult part of the job is handling cases where one party is not represented by a lawyer. You have to be patient, because first of all they don’t know what they’re doing, secondly, they’re in a stressful situation. You need to be gentle with them and listen to them so at least they feel they got a fair break. They may not like the outcome, but at least they’ll think they were dealt with fairly. But I’m sure that Troy knows that.
Were there more people without lawyers than you anticipated?
Yes. As a matter of fact, I had one jury trial where the plaintiff represented himself. It was a difficult situation for him and for me. I had to point out to him, procedurally, what he could do: You have to ask questions, but you don’t make statements. Early on, I went to what they call new judges’ school and that was one of the points they made: You have to at least try to level the playing field, but you don’t give legal advice.
Looking back, was this a good time for you to do a stint on the bench? Or is it something you wish you’d done earlier in your career?
Yes and yes. I had applied for this position two other times. One of my thoughts was I thought it would be a nice way to slow down because I tended to be at the office most nights and always on Saturday and usually on Sunday. The courthouse is closed on Saturday and Sunday, so I thought that would be a good way to slow down.
But I now wish that I had put a little time in on the bench at the start of my career, so I could learn how ineffective a lot of things we trial lawyers do really are: All you do is alienate the judge when you start playing games with other lawyers and with witnesses. If I do go back to some trial work, my approach will be a lot different. I think I’ll be much less of a pain in the rear as a trial lawyer in the future.
Because you knew you were a short-timer, did you try harder to settle cases and mediate disputes?
You know, I wonder about that. I wonder if perhaps I was more conscientious because I was only going to be here for 18 months — more so than I’d have been if I’d been here for six years. Yeah, I think that did help.
And of your colleagues on the bench: Is there anyone you want to single out for their counsel or collegiality?
The caliber of the judiciary in this area is outstanding. The judges we have right now are really good caliber. If something came up that I wasn’t sure about, I could run down to any one of them and just chat with them. They’d share their experiences with me — and they don’t make the decisions for you — but they’d say, ‘Well, you should think about that...” or, “You know, the statute requires this….”
They’ve been very helpful and they’re a good group of people. Of course, there are five of us in this (downtown) courthouse and two of them (Judges Michael Jansz and Karen Eiten) had been my partners for a number of years before they went on the bench. So we had pretty good collegiality before then.
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