SYCAMORE - Twenty years later, Robbin Stuckert still remembers the first murder trial she ever presided over, a guilty verdict of William Nally Jr., convicted of slaying Joseph Brandt in 2002.
Two decades on, Stuckert, 68, the first woman judge appointed in DeKalb County in 2001, will retire Friday after decades presiding over the 23rd Judicial Circuit Court.
The case was a violent one. Nally, then 39, was on parole at the time of the shooting from a 20-year sentence for a Kane County home invasion when he shot Brandt, 34, to death in rural DeKalb in November of 2002. Stuckert remembers the trial as a long one.
Stuckert sentenced Nally to 50 years in prison. If you ask Stuckert whether such a case will stay with her as she exits the courthouse, she’s pointed, confident in her reply. She frequently refers to respect in her courtroom, owed to all, including victim and defendant.
“Everybody is affected by what they hear in the courtroom,” Stuckert said. “But the role of the judiciary is to weigh evidence, apply the statute and make a determination or ruling. It’s always difficult. I’m a person of strong faith, and so I look to my faith to help me through and listen to difficult testimony and evidence. There’s an impact [to a verdict], everybody’s life is affected tragically, whether you’re a victim or a defendant.”
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Nicholle Martinez verdict Matthew Apgar - firstname.lastname@example.org
Judge Robbin Stuckert listens as First Assistant State's Attorney Stephanie Klein gives her closing argument during Nicholle Martinez's trial for the attempted murder of Elena Mora Garcia, the girlfriend of Martinez's husband, on Thursday, May 11, 2017 at the DeKalb County Courthouse in Sycamore. (Matthew Apgar - mapgar@shawmedia)
Path less traveled
Stuckert is nonchalant when she says she got her start in the legal world ‘later in life’ than most. “A late bloomer,” she says.
She grew up in River Grove, and didn’t move to DeKalb County until the 1970s, after her two children were already born. As an undergraduate in Florida years prior, she developed an interest in law, and worked at the time as a communications officer with the local sheriff’s department.
“That was my background,” she said. “Later in life, I just decided that helping people through resolutions just seemed to fit.”
Upon moving to Sycamore, Stuckert gradated from Northern Illinois University’s law school in 1990 at 37, with two children and the support of her husband of 42 years, Michael Stuckert (”When you pick the right partner and you work stronger and together,” she says of her marriage and family, which she called “extremely supportive.”) She has three adult children now, and nine grandchildren.
After law school, Stuckert began work in family law, taking on custody cases and guardianship cases.
In 2001, Stuckert was appointed associate judge in DeKalb County by the Illinois Supreme Court to fill the position made vacant by departing Judge Douglas Engle. She was the first woman to serve as a judge in the DeKalb County Courthouse. In 2004, she ran officially for the seat, defeating Ellen Pauling in a general primary. She’s won retention since, and in 2012 was appointed the first woman presiding judge to serve DeKalb County’s judicial court, replacing Kurt Klein.
And in 2012, she was made acting chief judge of the 23rd Judicial Circuit Court, which by that point had broken from Kane County and served only DeKalb and Kendall counties.
It’s been a whirlwind few weeks for Stuckert, as she ties up loose ends and hands over the duties of her role to incoming Circuit Court Judge Marcy Buick, who will be sworn in Friday.
“I don’t think it was ever a goal,” Stuckert said of taking the bench. “I think as you go through your career, you aspire to different things. Working in family law, I learned so much.”
Buick will be sworn in as the new 23rd Judicial Court Judge on Friday. Presiding Judge Bradley Waller, who was appointed to the role in May at Stuckert’s exit, will administer the oath of office.
“I have had the great fortune to work with Robbin Stuckert for nearly ten years,” Buick said, who called Stuckert a “leader in criminal justice reforms in the State of Illinois.”
“During those years, I watched and learned from her as she served in leadership roles,” Buick continued. “Robbin has been ceaselessly proactive in teaching judges to embrace pretrial supervision reform, bail reform, and to further implement problem-solving courts. She has made sure that DeKalb County was always on the leading edge of these reforms. That in and of itself certainly took courage and conviction on Robbin’s part.”
Waller said he’s known Stuckert his whole 33-year career. Stuckert, who’s official last day is Friday, has already left the courthouse. Waller said her presence is already missed.
“She was phenomenal, in every aspect,” Waller said. “I’ll never be able to fill her shoes, and I mean that honestly because she just set the bar so high. But I hope to come close to that, emulate her and how she did things. Her record is just replete. I knew her when I was an attorney before I took the bench. She’s just an absolutely wonderful person, high ethics, high morals. I’m better off for having known Robbin Stuckert.”
Waller and Buick both praised Stuckert’s attentiveness to administrative and legal duties inside and out of the courtroom.
Professionally, Stuckert’s influence can be seen as far as Springfield, where earlier this year Gov. JB Pritker signed into law a new criminal justice reform bill.
DeKalb County State’s Attorney Rick Amato said her hand is in that, too, as she sat on state panels years prior to the bill’s passage, during which lively debates were held on reforms for cash bail and addition treatment court programs, to name a few.
“Judge Stuckert worked very diligently on both,” Amato said. “In fact, some of the work she was involved in can be seen in the recent crime bill that was just enacted.”
He remarked on her courtroom deliberations, and her level of care as she deliberated on verdicts.
“I think what everyone in the court system including court personnel, attorneys, law enforcement and our victims will miss about Judge Stuckert is the work and care she put into her rulings during evidentiary hearings and sentencings,” Amato said. “She always found a way of directly communicating with the offender and the victim. What was special about it was that it would often confront the offender with the accountability he or she should be taking. When she spoke to the victim or to their family, you could really see them start to feel like people again. That was truly what Judge Stuckert did best.”
Drug treatment courts -- programs which have been around courtrooms nationwide for decades, Stuckert said -- came to DeKalb County in 2006. The goal of the programs are two-fold: address issues such as drug addiction and mental illness with compassion and a solution-focused hand, rather than a jail sentence, and stem repeat offenders who’s diseases often impede their ability to make good choices.
Since treatment courts came to DeKalb County, Stuckert said the program has serviced over 500 individuals.
Would she call that a success?
“It depends on how you define success,” Stuckert said. “I would like to believe that all have gone on to live lives with long term recovery, but that is not always the case. I think anybody who follows addition and understands addiction knows that relapse is something that’s prevalent. But I measure success as the time between when people use.”
It’s a cooperative effort, Stuckert said, one she’s proud of. An addict or person suffering from behavioral mental illnesses could be charged with a crime, and in lieu of a jail sentence, is set up with a team of counselors, lawyers, law enforcement officials and advocates which guide them through rehabilitation and recovery, if able. It’s a court-mandated supervised approach to restorative justice.
Stuckert said she’s seen good and bad come from the program, with some continuing to succumb unfortunately to their deaths. And others who’ve transformed.
“One individual who has been clean and sober, I was able to marry he and his wife,” Stuckert said. “He has a job, a child. He corresponds with me all of the time, telling me about the highlights of his life, his first car, first trip to Disney. It shows when we offer people hope, provide resources and treatment, they can succeed.”
In November of 2017, Stuckert was appointed the chair of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Pretrial Practices as part of a statewide effort by the legal and law communities to institute bond reform.
More than two years of consulting experts and best practices, academic and professional voices and analyzing pretrial data from across the state culminated in a report issued by the committee to the Illinois Supreme Court in April of 2020, during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the report were 54 recommendations for improved and reformative bond practices, part of the passage of House Bill 3653 in February, known as the ‘Safe-T Act’.
“There are many components to it but the number one thing and constitutional protections are bail is to maximize court appearances and ensure community safety,” Stuckert said.
‘An honor and a privilege’
As Stuckert prepares to retire from the bench, her work will continue. She’ll stay on the state’s pretrial taskforce and continue her other passion: judicial education as a member of the Illinois Judicial College as a faculty.
“Illinois has really been a leader in judicial education,” Stuckert said. “All of us need to continue with our education so we can be the best we can possibly be no matter what profession we are in.”
On Friday, Stuckert will be in the Wisconsin Dells watching her 11-year-old granddaughter’s sports tournament.
She said she’s proud of the work she’s done in her 30-year career. Though she wouldn’t change anything, she hopes the collaborative nature of such programs as treatment court show promise for how formative and life-changing compassion-led court systems can be. People first, respect always.
“That’s what I’ve always looked at with everybody that comes in front of me,” Stuckert said. “They are an individual and they have made a poor decision. There are consequences to everybody’s actions and sometimes they’re good, and sometimes they have very negative responses. But they’re all individuals and should be treated with respect no matter what sentence one imposes. Tt should be done in a respectful way. I always hope that when people leave my courtroom, they may not agree with the decision I’ve made but they’ve understood the reasons for my decision.”
She said she’s been “honored and blessed” to be in her role, and will miss most the people at the DeKalb County courthouse.
“I know there’s many people who look to retirement because they may be in jobs that they don’t love, they may be in jobs that are stressful and decide that that’s a reason to leave. That’s never been the case here,” Stuckert said. “It has just been an honor and a privilege. There’s just no two ways about it. I’m a very lucky person.”