Cook County Circuit Court tackled coronavirus pandemic with innovations that included almost 1.5 million hours of Zoom videoconference hearings, and is looking at new solutions for a post-COVID-19 future

Released On 03/17/2021

The Cook County Circuit Court did not let a global pandemic shut down the fair and efficient administration of justice in the Chicago area. Instead, Cook County judges, working with public and private sector attorneys, clerks and other court personnel, have employed technology, innovation, and a spirit of cooperation to meet the coronavirus challenge, resulting in 1,474,274 hours of Zoom court sessions with more than 1.8 million participants between March 17, 2020 and March 11, 2021 in all divisions.

The court also handled 894,991 motions and orders between March 17, 2020 and March 5, 2021, which includes adult criminal matters, plus most civil matters (not including the Child Protection, County and Traffic Divisions, or the Juvenile Justice Division).

A comparison of the total number of case filings and case dispositions in all parts of the court in the second and third quarters of 2021 shows how quickly the courts were able to recover after the initial shutdown in March 2020. In the second quarter of 2020, between April and June, 83,001 cases were filed or reinstated, while 44,648 cases were disposed, according to numbers from the Administrative Office of Illinois Courts. That made for a “clearance” rate of almost 54%, which measures how a court is keeping up with its case load.

The courts got busier in the summer of 2020, and judges and other court personnel were able to meet the demand. In the third quarter of 2020, 146,362 cases were filed or reinstated in all court divisions, and 126,862 cases were disposed, for a clearance rate of almost 87%. This compares favorably with the third quarter of 2019, which had a clearance rate of 73%. This shows how the courts got busier in the summer of 2020, and judges and other court personnel were able to meet the demand.

“The judges, lawyers, and court personnel have been tremendously creative, flexible, and good-humored in the transition to online proceedings,” said Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans. “I have been immensely proud at how willing and determined our judges and our staff have been to find solutions to continue to serve the people of Cook County while addressing the safety concerns posed by this virus.”

Both representatives of the private bar and public sector attorneys have complimented the Circuit Court for its response to the challenges raised by the pandemic.

“We had a chief judge who was amenable from the very beginning of the pandemic to the courts going virtual, and who was not resistant to it,” said Chicago Bar Association President Maryam Ahmad, a former judge who now heads the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Juvenile Justice Bureau.

“The past year has been jarring for people in the system as well as those working in the system, however, the flexibility and creativity of all the criminal justice partners during this time is extremely commendable,” said State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. “We continue to work collaboratively to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of all of those in the pursuit of the administration of justice.”

“Chief Judge Evans was instrumental in providing a process for the safe release of my clients from the jail, before the first detainee had tested positive,” said Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli. “We were able to be proactive, working together with the judiciary, State’s Attorney, and the Sheriff, allowing us to safely reduce the jail population by several thousand and literally prevent many deaths.”

Judge Evans singled out for praise the efforts of Michael Carroll, director of Information Services for the Office of the Chief Judge, who led the effort to install Zoom in all courtrooms and instructed judges and other court personnel in its use, and Eileen Heisler, administrative assistant for the office, who visited all courthouses throughout the county to aid in the transition to virtual proceedings and the planned resumption of jury trials.

“Zoom Rooms” were established in all courthouses to accommodate litigants who lacked access to videoconferencing or teleconferencing technology. For those who did come to the courthouse, personal protective equipment was provided to judges and courtroom personnel, social distancing was maintained, and no one was allowed to enter court facilities without a temperature check and passing a health screening.

The use of videoconferencing and teleconferencing for court procedures has been so successful and popular that judges are discussing continuing its use in some situations after the threat of COVID-19 lifts.

For example, the Hon. Judge Diann Marsalek, Acting Presiding Judge of the Traffic Division, plans to continue to use teleconferencing for minor traffic cases to save litigants from having to take time off work, spend money on transportation, and come to court to resolve cases that involve only fines.

“People like to move on with their lives,” said Judge Marsalek said of the division’s efforts to continue to resolve cases despite the pandemic. “They don’t like to be stuck in a holding pattern.”

In the Child Protection Division, the use of teleconferencing increased the participation of children’s parents “dramatically,” said the Hon. Judge Robert Balanoff, Acting Presiding Judge. He said that beyond the pandemic, the division plans to work with attorneys and other stakeholders to come up with a hybrid system to allow teleconferencing for some matters.

Another example of the flexibility shown by the courts is the sharing of duties among judges within divisions. In the Law Division, for example, since jury trials could not be held, judges that typically handle trials have taken work from judges who handle motions, in order to reduce their heavy burden and prevent a backlog, according to the Hon. James P. Flannery, Jr., Presiding Judge. Judge Flannery said that motion judges had been working up to 11 hours a day, since they also were doing the work of clerks.

The most significant impact of the pandemic has been experienced in terms of civil and criminal jury and bench trials. The court has not been able to hold jury trials, and the number of bench trials has been limited. However, the court is planning to resume criminal jury trials next week, and is taking extensive precautions to protect the health of jurors, judges, lawyers, litigants, witnesses, and other court personnel.

The Circuit Court of Cook County also has continued other reforms started before the pandemic, including opening two new Restorative Justice Community Courts in Avondale and Englewood to provide alternatives to incarceration and second chances to young people who are arrested for non-violent offenses.

“The pandemic, while tragic and challenging on many levels, has also been a source of education for the courts,” said Judge Evans. “We have learned something from it about the flexibility and the resiliency of judges, attorneys and all court personnel that will benefit us in delivering justice going forward.”

Numbers in this press release come from both the Circuit Court and from the Administrative Office of Illinois Courts, available here.


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