Rare is the judge willing to stand before an audience and discuss his views on politically sensitive Supreme Court rulings, controversial bond reform measures and the harm done by long prison sentences.
Fourth District Appellate Judge James Knecht talked about those topics and more on Tuesday night during a speech sponsored by the Central Illinois Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The longest serving judge in Illinois did not mince words during his talk titled “The Serpent Beguiled Me: Criminal Justice, Prisons and the Illusion of Originalism.” Knecht took his title from the Book of Genesis, a reference to Eve’s reply to God as to why she gave in to the temptation to eat the forbidden fruit.
It is fear, Knecht told the audience, that controls much of the nation. For instance, people have been told to be afraid of so called “super predators,” youth who commit crimes. Hillary Clinton used the phrase during her campaign, the judge said, as a means of convincing people she would be tough on crime. Democrats, it seems, can be as careless as Republicans with language.
The characterization of youth as super predators is inaccurate and harmful, said the judge who also spent time as a teacher working with mentally disabled youth.
“Speeches, news media, racial tropes, words that are ugly, maim, feral wolf packs, kill rape thugs, predators, sub-human. When you use those words, it makes people afraid,” he said.
Knecht was equally open about politicians, including former President Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, “an opportunist who preaches poisonous drivel.”
The foundational argument for the U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe vs. Wade is on shaky ground, according to Knecht. Reliance by Justice Sam Alito on a theory that abortion lacks deep roots in America is “intellectual hypocrisy at its best,” he said. Ignored in the arguments that garnered support from the court’s majority was the fact that Benjamin Franklin authored step-by-step instructions on home abortions in his best-selling book.
On the issue of bond, Knecht opined that upcoming changes in Illinois’ bond rules could create “a challenge” but not a bottleneck for the court system. Clarifications and revisions will be necessary, said Knecht, to the law designed to allow low level offenders to be released without cash bail.
On the issue of wrongful convictions, the appellate judge said he does not take issue with the length of time required for such cases to move through the courts. (The average case takes 12 years and most takes decades to resolve.) After all, mistakes were made in some of those cases so a slow and thoughtful process could prevent more errors, said Knecht.
Knecht supports the existence of innocence projects, though he does not always agree with the outcome of their efforts to exonerate innocent people. Early release of elderly and infirm prison inmates who pose no danger to society is also supported by Knecht, so long as medical care is available to them.
America, said Knecht, deserves “a living Constitution,” in the spirit of the nation’s founders.
“They trusted us today, through our courts and our laws and through the political process, to apply those terms as principles for guidance. Not handcuffs.”