Can a judge show compassion without being lenient?

Five people seeking the Democratic and Republican nominations for an at-large judge seat in the 16th Judicial Circuit recently weighed in on this question, with differing interpretations.

Judge David Akemann plans to step down from his seat later this year, meaning voters will decide Kane County's next circuit judge.

Circuit judges oversee their courtrooms, but also help set local policies and appoint associate judges. Kane has 14 circuit judges and 17 associate judges.

Lark Cowart and Michael Noland are seeking the Democratic nomination March 20, while Elizabeth Flood, Thomas Hartwell and David Kliment hope to earn the Republican nomination.

The general election is Nov. 8 and that winner takes office in December.

The Democrats

Cowart, an assistant state's attorney who works in the juvenile division, said a judge can have compassion for victims -- and defendants -- without being lenient. She said a judge can understand a defendant's background, but in the end they still must comply with a sentence.

"You can have compassion for what (defendants) are going through," Cowart said. "It's hard to be concerned about with your $50 court fine when you're concerned about having electricity. That's compassion. Leniency would (have the judge) say, 'I'll just waive it.'"

Noland, a former state senator from Elgin who served 10 years on a judiciary committee, said judges need to be compassionate -- and empathetic.

"Compassion ultimately is an understanding and a sense of empathy of what individuals on both sides of an issue are expressing," he said. "Compassion and empathy, though they may be two separate things, they are something that has to be applied by a judge."

The Republicans

Flood worked 17 years in the criminal and civil divisions of the state's attorney's office before her appointment as an associate judge in 2013.

"Compassion is when you listen to people and understand what brought them to your courtroom," she said. "We can all be compassionate with every single person that comes in front of us on either side of the case without being called too strict or too lenient."

Hartwell, the circuit court clerk, said compassion should be focused on the victim, but not to the point of being unfair.

"The law requires that judgment be entered without passion or prejudice. It has to be done fairly," Hartwell said. "So when we look at what the circumstances are for a person who's facing judgment, it's, 'What happened to the victim?' and what's an appropriate punishment that goes with that?"

Kliment worked as the public defender for 16 years before his appointment as an associate judge in 2010. He said a judge can be understanding of a defendant's background and compassionate to victims, but that's where it stops.

"You have to have compassion for them but that can't have any effect on how you rule in the case," Kliment said. "Compassion has no place, no sympathy, no prejudice -- that's a jury instruction and I think compassion and sympathy go hand in hand."

Early voting is available at certain locations through March 19. For a list, visit