Meet John Stewart, Finance and Administration Director, and the Administrative Office of the Court’s longest-serving employee. Here he shares reflections on his nearly 40 years of service.
You’re currently the longest-serving AOC employee. How long have you been with the agency?
I’ve been here since 1978. That’s 37, almost 38 years.
What was it like when you came to work for the AOC? What was the agency like? Where was it located?
This [the Justice Building] is the original building. It was a very, very small office in the basement. It was the whole Judicial Department. We did eventually get a grant and we had a systems division, which was just a few people, located in the Executive Building over on Markham. It was a federally-funded group for statistical reporting. C.R. Huie was the first director, but he wasn’t called a director, he was called the executive secretary to the Chief Justice. He was the executive secretary when I started. Chief Justice Howard Brill is my 10th Chief Justice to serve under. My first one was Carleton Harris. We had maybe 3 or 4 state-funded positions and probably 4 or 5 that were federally funded. We had 10 total employees at the time. It was a small group.
During that time, what was the agency’s sole purpose?
They were established to collect statistics for the courts. There were Supreme Court Committees then but not as many, so they had that on their plate as well.
How have you seen the AOC evolve during your career?
We’ve gotten more into, what I would term, modern court management and centralization. We were very de-centralized and fragmented in the past. If you look at the maps of the circuits, you see that there was overlap of chancery and circuit courts. Those kinds of things were modernized and improved. Also, modern case management and trying to improve the flow of cases through the system in a timely manner. When I first started, that was a big push from the American Bar Association and Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), which had the grant money to try to modernize the courts. That’s why I was brought over from LEAA to be the court planner here to try to help with that modernization.
In the beginning the AOC existed to collect statistical information from the courts. Have you seen those interactions between the AOC and courts change? If so, how?
I think they’ve been strengthened. There’s more interaction on a daily basis between the judges and our office. Any time you have that more frequent, two-way communication, I think it helps a lot.
What kind of services did the AOC provide then, if any, and what kind of services does it provide now that it didn’t provide then?
Because the Judicial Department was so small, we couldn’t provide a lot because most of our time was spent trying to gather things and we did a lot of grant writing to try to get money. We didn’t have a lot of state funds so we would have to go find the money and bring it in to do some of these projects. It was kind of a bare bones organization. We could only do a few things other than our statistical gathering and production of reports. When you look at us today, we’ve got Contexte, eFiling, and jury management. We’re getting legislation to try to improve services to the public and giving money back to the counties. Our budget was very, very small and now you’re talking about a multi-million-dollar operation.
What’s the most beneficial service and support that the AOC provides to the Judiciary?
I would think it would be a central repository of knowledge and a staff that is available to assist when a judge, clerk, or another state agency has a problem or needs some information. Also with our CIS Division, being able to provide resources in docket automation, when counties wouldn’t be able to afford it otherwise. Having a true state-wide system will be the biggest feather in our cap.
What’s the biggest overall change that you’ve seen to the Judiciary during your career?
I would say it’s the way it’s been restructured and modernized. Whether it’s through consolidation of circuits to make it more organizationally efficient, allowing judges to have a trial court administrator which they didn’t have before, or being able to move the cases through the system, especially the bulk of cases that are coming in now. We’ve grown so much that way.
Has the AOC made any significant contributions to the Judiciary? What do you think is the most significant contribution?
It would have to be the administration. Being able to assist the Supreme Court in their court administration as we’ve seen in other states. Being able to centralize some of the duties to more efficiently assist the public in getting their cases speedily heard and dispensing the appropriate justice.
Where do you think the agency is headed? What will it look like in 10, 20, or even 50 years?
Well, you know it took a long time to get to this point. I would think being able to go out and getting the court fees to fund some of these programs like the CIS division and being able to provide the servers, infrastructure, and people with which to bring this data under one umbrella and start to be able to mine it, that’s where you are going to be able to see the biggest improvement in the next 5-10 years. It’s the mining of all this data and being able to use it for improvement of the system and for the executive management decisions to be made with more knowledge than we’ve had in the past.
When you first started, did you ever imagine the AOC would look like it does today?
No. With the number of employees we have now, it’s kind of mind boggling that we’re here at this point. I would never have thought we would have the need for a department of court interpretation but now if you look at all the languages we send our folks out to interpret, it’s amazing how many people are here that need that assistance. When I was growing up, that thought would have been totally alien to me. By next year we’ll have all circuit courts on one system. Who would have thought that would be possible? And district courts are coming. Efiling is really going to fire people up. Electronic records, who would have thought? We were always fighting paper. We had a warehouse to store all these records and now that’s all going electronic. There was no way to even see that coming. I saw the first PC in the AOC. We brought it in and started using it and when I first brought up the idea of a network in the Justice Building for the judges, their staff, and AOC, it got a lot of pushback because they were used to stand alone typewriters.
What has been the greatest pleasure for you to be fortunate enough to witness during your time with the AOC?
I’m a people person. We started out very small and even then we were divided from one location to another but I would say it’s the people that I have met along the way. They’ve come in here and I’ve seen them grow and either leave us to do great things or stay on to help us do what we’ve done. That’s what I’ve enjoyed the most.