It’s official: the county’s resident circuit judge will return to the Monroe County Courthouse with the start of the new year, per 2022 judicial assignments.
Judge Chris Hitzemann spent the first year of his elected term in St. Clair County presiding over a felony docket. When he returns to Monroe County, Hitzemann will hear cases regarding almost all areas of both criminal and civil law.
“Typically (with) the resident circuit judge in small counties, any case that’s filed is yours unless you have a conflict or you have an associate that you can assign things out to,” Hitzemann explained. “So, you’re just kind of a jack of all trades.”
Hitzemann heard cases in St. Clair County since he could not preside over cases he filed or prosecuted as Monroe County’s state’s attorney.
St. Clair County Resident Circuit Judge Dominic Kujawa presided over Hitzemann’s Monroe County docket, and will continue to do so until both judges return to their respective counties on Jan. 1.
“It’s been an amazing experience,” Hitzemann said of his time in St. Clair County. “I have more cases on my docket than are filed in Monroe County in a typical year. There are issues and stuff that come up in the cases here (in St. Clair County) that we don’t always get to see, so I’ve gotten to hear motions and different issues that don’t come up a ton down there … I think (this has) really prepared me to deal with some difficult issues.”
Hitzemann said while such cases, including murder and Class X felonies, may not be commonly seen in Monroe County, he believes his experience in St. Clair County will still be useful when presiding here.
“There are more violent felonies, more gun-related type cases, so there’s more opportunities for issues to arise with search and seizure type issues, motions to suppress evidence and (other) things that we don’t see as much in Monroe County,” Hitzemann said. “But, it does come up occasionally, and it’s been nice to have heard a number of hearings where I’ve had to make the credibility determinations and rule on some pretty serious stuff.”
Hitzemann had a slew of other judges to learn from in St. Clair County. Being one of four felony judges, he was able to discuss relevant law with his colleagues. Due to the large size of the county and the volume of cases, 12 associate judges and eight circuit judges, including Hitzemann, hear cases at its courthouse, the St. Clair County website states.
“One of the blessings in disguise of being here for a year is that there’s a number of judges in this building and every judge specializes,” Hitzemann said. “I’ve made connections and built relationships that hopefully I’ll be able to lean on when I come back if there’s some type of an issue that’s unique.”
Hitzemann intends on continuing to take advantage of this in the final few weeks he is in St. Clair County, he remarked.
“I’ve tried while I’ve been here, and I’m going to this last month while I’m here, to poke my head into as many courtrooms as possible that are dealing with some of the issues that I’ll be dealing with and try to pick their brains a little bit,” Hitzemann said.
In St. Clair County, Hitzemann repeatedly got an up close look at St. Clair County’s drug court. As Hitzemann repeatedly mentioned in his campaign for judge, he hopes to bring this type of “problem-solving court” to Monroe County.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve had the opportunity to fill in for Judge Haida, who runs the drug court, on a few occasions. So I’ve actually gotten to preside over it three or four times,” Hitzemann said. “It’s been a great experience to be part of it and see how it works here.”
Earlier this year, it was announced that Monroe, Washington, Randolph and Perry counties will become a new 24th judicial circuit as St. Clair County will be the only county in the 20th circuit come December 2022.
Hitzemann said this news has delayed the process of getting Monroe County a drug court.
“The legislation that split us off into the new 24th circuit has thrown a wrench in our plans a little bit because we’re working on funding sources and stuff. We’re going to have to have a probation officer and some other facility or some other providers that will be specific to drug court, and while we’re trying to figure out who is going to be in charge of probation and what that’s going to look like, it’s become difficult (to make substantial movement),” he said.
He added this has not stopped him from moving toward the goal entirely, though.
“Earlier (last) week I met with one of the probation officers that writes grants for that type of stuff and our probation officer here in St. Clair County, and we’re trying to move that forward as much as we can with some of the challenges that have been thrown to us,” Hitzemann said.
Hitzemann returning will not be the only change the courthouse will witness come the new year. Associate Judge Jeff Watson, who presided over small claims in St. Clair County this year, will be the travelling judge, the position currently held by Judge Julia Gomric.
Gomric will return to St. Clair County, where she will hear small claim civil cases, Hitzemann said. Gomric presided over many cases in Monroe County this past year.
“The traveling judge goes out to each of the four outer counties, the counties that will end up being our new circuit – us, Randolph, Perry and Washington – and typically goes to each county a day a week,” Hitzemann said.
Watson will primarily handle the following dockets: misdemeanor, traffic and pay-or-appear while in the county on Wednesdays. On the fourth Tuesday of the month, he will preside over the county’s small claim cases.
“That allows for the resident circuit judge to then, during those times, to deal with more substantive hearings and issues that come up in the criminal cases and in the family cases and that kind of stuff,” Hitzemann explained. “So, it’s a good use of (the traveling judge’s) time and in those types of cases you rarely, if ever, have issues that go beyond what happens in court that day when people show up, so it’s not something that they’re having to take files with them or prepare for something before they show up that day.”
Watson will also hear cases that present a conflict for Hitzemann.
“Personally, I like Judge Watson quite a bit. He’s a good guy, a fair person and I’m looking forward to working with him,” Hitzemann said, adding Watson, like him, has a lot of civil experience.
Even more changes are on the horizon for the Monroe County judicial system, as more information about the new circuit’s functioning will come as December 2022 nears.
“It’s a little nerve wracking, but it’s also exciting,” Hitzemann said. “It’s kind of neat to be part of the group of judges that will be the first judges of this new 24th circuit, but there are some challenges.”
Hitzemann said himself, other judges from the outer counties and probation have discussed what implications the new circuit may bring.
“We’re trying to get ahead of any issues we might have or just kind of talk so that we can discover any issues we might have or things that maybe the judges hadn’t thought of themselves,” Hitzemann said. “The only stumbling block we have there is we don’t know how many judges we’re going to have or who those people will be until the end of next year. So, we’re trying to plan as much as we can and hope that everything goes smoothly.”