Circuit Courts (Illinois)

State: Illinois

In 1819, the first Illinois General Assembly created the circuit court system. The legislature divided the state into four circuits and assigned a justice of the Illinois Supreme Court to each circuit. Justices held terms for each county of the circuit court twice a year. Justices rode their respective circuits in order to hold court at each county seat and to remain in close contact with the citizenry. The circuit court had jurisdiction in all cases at common law and chancery arising in each of the counties in the circuit where the debt or demand exceeded $20. Circuit courts also had jurisdiction in all criminal matters committed within any county in the circuit. While holding circuit court, the justices were conservators of the peace and had the power to issue injunctions and writs. Several counties comprised one circuit. All circuits had a spring term and a fall term. Populous counties, such as Sangamon, often had third terms. When court concluded in one county, the circuit judge, the state’s attorney, and several lawyers traveled to the next county in the circuit. They repeated this process for each of the counties within the circuit. The individual court terms lasted from two days to several weeks, and the circuit terms usually lasted two to three months.

In 1824, the legislature created a fifth circuit, relieved the supreme court justices of their circuit duty, and appointed five circuit judges to hold court. Each circuit judge had to live within the boundaries of his circuit. An 1827 legislative act repealed part of the 1824 act and again required supreme court justices to travel the circuit. Because the state had four justices and five circuits, the legislature appointed one circuit judge for the circuit north of the Illinois River. In 1835, the legislature repealed the 1827 act and elected five circuit judges to perform circuit court duties. By 1839, the General Assembly had created four new judicial circuits to provide for the increasing Illinois population. In 1841, the legislature created five new positions for justices on the Illinois Supreme Court, abolished the position of circuit judge, and divided the state into nine judicial circuits. The chief justice and the eight associate justices held circuit court in the circuit in which they lived. The new constitution of 1848 provided for circuit courts with one judge in each of the nine circuits. Judges held at least two terms of court in each county each year. Qualified voters in each circuit elected judges, who served for a term of six years. All inferior court judges, including circuit judges, had to be citizens of the United States, had to reside in Illinois for at least five years and in their jurisdiction for at least two years, and had to be at least thirty years of age. The General Assembly had the power to increase the number of circuits and added two circuits in 1849, four circuits in 1851, two circuits in 1853, seven circuits in 1857, and two circuits in 1859. By 1860, Illinois had twenty-six judicial circuits.

“Court Structure,” in Martha L. Benner and Cullom Davis et al., eds. The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Complete Documentary Edition, 2d ed. (Springfield: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, 2009), html files/Court Structure.html.