Judge tells Cook County: Do not cut circuit judges’ funding, for now

Campaign website of Judge Hoffman

Lake County Circuit Judge Mitchell L. Hoffman

Cook County officials were ordered Tuesday not to force Circuit Court layoffs at least until later this month, after Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans asserted the cutbacks would risk both public safety and the constitutional rights of minors.

Lake County Circuit Judge Mitchell L. Hoffman issued the ruling after a hearing Tuesday at which the county contended sharp cutbacks to the courts and other criminal justice offices were needed because of a budget crisis created when the county board last month repealed a controversial tax on beverages.

Hoffman, who is specially assigned to the case, ruled that potential harm from the layoffs and the possibility that they overstepped the county’s authority outweighed, at least temporarily, the county’s effort to solve the budget problem.

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“The consequences of the County of Cook’s budget cuts at issue here will, pursuant to the Chief Judge’s sworn pleading, result in the elimination of key positions in the Adult Probation Department, the Social Services Department, and the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center,” Hoffman wrote. “As a result of these factors, both the public safety and constitutional rights of minors will be impacted.”

The judge imposed a temporary restraining order preventing the county from imposing any layoffs on the court operations, at least until the next hearing on the merits of the case, a hearing that will be scheduled next week.

To issue the order, filed in a lawsuit brought by Evans Thursday against the county board president, Toni Preckwinkle, and the county treasurer, Maria Pappas, the judge had to find “a likelihood“ that Evans will win on the merits at the hearing. Had the judge not acted, the Cook County Board of Commissioners was prepared to cut off funding for 161 non-judicial court employees, some of whom would have found themselves without a salary at the end of this week.

Evans’ lawsuit contends the cuts would have left the court gravely underfunded, and that the layoffs would have made impossible the court’s effort to reform the bail system and maintain reforms to the juvenile detention system.

In evaluating the county’s effort to impose cutbacks against the impact of those cuts, the judge heard arguments about the validity of the way they were imposed. “The bottom line remains that the county appropriates the funds and that’s it. Then the Chief Judge decides what to do with the funds,” said Sunil Bhave, an assistant attorney general representing Evans.

The circuit court is not a department of Cook County government, but rather what Bhave described as an “independent, co-equal branch of state government” part of a united state court system, which gives it a greater ability to push back against cuts.

The court’s non-judicial employees are also employed by the Chief Judge, not the county, despite the county’s paying the salaries of the employees at issue.

Thomas G. DiCianni, a lawyer for the county, argued that a temporary restraining order was not needed, saying that Evans’s office could ask the Cook County Board for a fund transfer if the Chief Judge preferred to make cuts in other ways, as long as the court operated within its budget. Judge Hoffman’s order rejected this argument.

Hoffman noted that the Illinois Supreme Court has previously recognized the issue facing courts: The judicial branch “has no treasury. It possesses no power to impose or collect taxes. It commands no militia. To sustain itself financially and to implement its decisions,” the court noted, the judiciary is completely reliant on the other branches of government.

The order held that the Chief Judge has sole authority over termination of the circuit court’s non-judicial employees, and that “the Office of the Chief Judge has the right to control the manner in which the County’s budget appropriation is applied to the function of the Cook County Circuit Court.”

The two sides sought to reach agreement short of Hoffman’s intervention during the hearing. But Frank Shuftan, chief spokesperson for President Preckwinkle, contended after the hearing that the chief judge would not reduce the amount of money he insisted the county had to provide, which Shuftan said was unacceptable.

“The County approved an appropriation that it determined adequately supported the Office of the Chief Judge, and the County does not have the resources to appropriate additional funds,” Shuftan said. “Nonetheless, the Chief Judge, as do all offices, has the ability to seek fund transfers from the Board during the year to address any operational priorities as long as the office stays within its overall allocated amounts.”

The budget cuts enacted by the Cook County Board after the repeal of the controversial soda tax hit the circuit court particularly hard, according to the lawsuit.

Nearly half of all layoffs in the budget are to the Circuit Court, despite its accounting for only 5.6% of the county’s 2018 budget. Evans contends that the layoffs forestalled by Tuesday’s order would cause particular problems for efforts to reform the county’s bail system, with reductions in supervisors crippling the pretrial services unit and the unit that supervises electronic monitoring.