By SAMANTHA PIDDE
Judge Val Gunnarsson is retiring from the bench in early December after four decades of admirably and expertly serving the legal profession, in particular the last 18 years as resident circuit judge for Carroll County.
Gunnarsson, 65, of Savanna, was the first of his family born in the "New World" (America). His parents, Dr. Borgthor and Asta, immigrated from Iceland when his older brother was seven-months-old. Val was born in New York and moved to Savanna with his family when he was 19-months-old.
He attended Savanna schools from kindergarten through high school, graduating from Savanna High School with the Class of 1973. He was president of the science club and co-captain of the football team his senior year.
Judge Gunnarsson admits that growing up, he never thought of being a lawyer or judge. Instead, he wanted to be either an archeologist of marine biologist.
"But one day out of the blue the first summer after I started college, my mother told me exactly this: 'Your father and I have been talking. He thinks you should go to law school,'" Gunnarsson told the Mirror-Democrat/Times-Journal. "That was it. I never questioned it. I never even asked why. I felt if that's what Dad thinks, then that's what I should do. This is how we sometimes listened to our parents in those days."
He received his B.A. from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., in 1977 and his law degree from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in 1980. He recalled that on his first day of law school at the U of I, he had never even seen the inside of a courtroom. He was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1980.
Gunnarsson's first job out of law school was in the Criminal Appeals Division of the Illinois Attorney General's Office in Springfield, and for the next year and a half he represented the prosecution in challenges to convictions.
"I was given the opportunity to brief and argue cases in the Illinois Supreme Court and in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago and in the Central and Southern U.S. District Courts on habeas corpus,” he said. “It was like an intensive extra 18 months of law school all about criminal trials.”
Following that experience, he became a Winnebago County Assistant State's Attorney in Rockford for roughly six years. He said Rockford's high crime rate at the time meant there were a lot of jury trials.
"I loved doing jury trials and I aimed for one jury each month. Once I did two juries in a single week," Gunnarsson said.
In 1988, he was elected Carroll County State's Attorney, winning re-election in 1992 and 1996. Gunnarsson said he was committed to the idea of term limits, prompting him not to seek a fourth term. After stepping down as state’s attorney, he entered private practice with his own office in Savanna.
"I was happy to be the Savanna City Attorney and the attorney for the Jo-Carroll LRA — involved with the base closure and re-use plan at the Savanna Army Depot — and I assisted many private clients," Gunnarsson said.
During this time, he also was an attorney for the Citizens Utility Board in downtown Chicago, recalling how much driving was involved.
Gunnarsson was elected resident circuit judge for Carroll County in 2002 in a contest involving two other candidates. Since then, the voters of the five-county Fifteenth Judicial Circuit have overwhelmingly retained him in 2008 and 2014, with more than 80 percent margins.
Judge Gunnarsson said he has enjoyed the many duties of his position, but especially serving the people of Carroll County.
"The best and happiest moments have been completing adoptions,” he said. “The most bothersome have been the worst of the violent crimes that I have had to address and civil cases where lives have been lost."
Added Judge Gunnarsson, "A good judge must completely understand the law, but also have some sense of empathy. Sometimes there is no joy in what a judge must do."
He noted that while he has handled cases throughout the five-county circuit, as many of our judges do, during his time on the circuit bench, over the years he also has accepted a number of very substantial civil and criminal case assignments outside of the circuit in several suburban counties (Lake, McHenry, DuPage and Kane). These were cases in which all of the judges of the respective circuits had recused themselves or were substituted for cause.
Gunnarsson served as Chief Judge of the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit from 2010-13, serving on the Conference of Chief Judges in Chicago. He is proud to note that in that capacity he was the first chairman of its courtroom technology committee.
"Maybe one of the best things I did as Chief was to petition the Illinois Supreme Court to admit our circuit in allowing extended news media coverage of judicial proceedings,” he said. “it's what we call Cameras in the Courtroom. This was granted and our circuit was the first primarily rural circuit admitted. Transparency in what we do is good for the public.”
After his term as Chief Judge, the Supreme Court made Gunnarsson chairman of its e-Business Technical Advisory Committee, involved in working with courts throughout the State as they adapted to new courtroom technologies, including the commencement of e-filing around Illinois.
Gunnarsson and a judge from Livingston County and one from Madison County were instructors at the 2018 Judicial Education Conference on the use of courtroom video technologies to something like 300 other Illinois judges over four sessions.
"Of course we had no idea how timely our presentation would turn out to be once COVID hit us all,” Judge Gunnarsson said. “Right now, due to COVID, a great deal of courtroom business around the State is done by video.”
For many years Judge Gunnarsson also was a member of the Writing Team on the Illinois Benchbook on Evidence, which is provided annually to every judge in this State. He said he enjoyed this role and was saddened to resign from that position this summer because of his impending retirement.
"I have always loved the study of the law of evidence. It is an incredibly complex weave of common law rules, preferences and habits formed over the past 500 or more years, first in courts of England and then in the United States," Gunnarsson said.
The soon-to-be-retired jurist also said he has happily helped to mentor and teach young judges throughout the years. He has served as a "facilitator" under the Supreme Court's Judicial Evaluation Program since 2012. Under this program a fraction of the 900-plus Illinois judges undergo a confidential evaluation of his or her performance as a judge. This evaluation involves the reports of 50-100 attorneys and court personnel.
When the results are in, a facilitator such as Gunnarsson meets with the judge from somewhere else in the State, in great confidence to review the results and to address and correct any issues that have been uncovered.
"I am happy to say that nearly all of my facilitations have been pleasant affairs in which I can commend the judge on what he or she is doing well and we together discuss ways to do even better,"
In August 2019, Gunnarsson informed the Illinois Supreme Court that he was planning to retire and would not seek retention in 2020.
"I have a wife, two adult children, and incredibly beautiful little grandchildren who mean more to me than continuing a life of the law," Judge Gunnarsson said as his reason for retiring.
He noted that he had a "serious fight" with Stage IV Hodgkin Lymphoma in 2015. He said he had recovered from the cancer, thanks to his new life-long friend and oncologist, Dr. Christopher Fletcher at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, only for a "return of that rotten disease" last fall. This was followed by more months of chemo and finally last June he had a bone marrow transplant.
"This has helped me understand better what really matters in life," Judge Gunnarsson said. "May I tell you this: cancer is bad for the body but it is good for the soul."
Val said he is looking forward to spending more time with his family and playing chess with his good friend, Judge Joel Berg of McHenry County. The two of them play by sending each other their moves by instant messaging. Gunnarsson said Berg was once the Illinois State High School chess champion, something Val “didn’t know there was such a thing.”
"We take weeks, sometimes, between moves," said Judge Gunnarsson. "Our games take months. He wins every time."
As Dec. 7 approaches when Judge Jerry Kane will take the oath of office as resident circuit court judge, Judge Gunnarsson summed up his feelings on his departure:
"I will miss my friends at the Carroll County Courthouse,” Judge Gunnarsson said. “I have loved my time with them and at the risk of sounding corny, I love them, too. I've known and worked with some of them for over 30 years. They are kind, good and true public servants. Every one of them."