Cook County Circuit Court to dramatically scale back operations due to coronavirus

UPDATE: Chief Judge Timothy Evans has publicly announced the court’s coronavirus response. Read here.

Updated: Friday, March 13, 8:00 p.m.

The Cook County Circuit Court is suspending all but the most essential matters for 30 days starting Tuesday, in response to the novel coronavirus COVID-19, multiple sources confirmed to Injustice Watch.

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The court, which has about 400 judges, will scale down to two to four judges for most of its 15 divisions. The decision will have immediate ramifications on criminal justice, public health, and everyday life in one of the largest court systems in the world. Many of the specifics are still being decided. Chief Judge Timothy Evans plans to publicly announce the change Friday night, a source said.

Evans broke the news to a group of presiding judges in a three-hour-long meeting Friday afternoon that also included State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. What is ‘essential’ will vary according to division, but the courts are expected to pare back nearly all in-person matters.

The courts will not be in session except to hear emergencies in civil cases or certain categories of criminal cases. Bond court will still be in session. Judges in the domestic relations division were told that two judges per day will remain in the Daley Center, and the rest should work from home. Normal business is expected to resume on April 16, but Evans has left open the possibility of a 30-day extension.

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The decision comes a day after Evans and the presiding judges considered everything from a full closure to a system in which judges stayed home and heard cases via cameras installed on their benches, according to multiple sources. Evans has also been in frequent consultation with the Cook County Board of Commissioners, he told the group.

What the decision will look like in practice remains to be seen, as each division determines over the next few days which matters can be put on the backburner. All court employees will continue to be paid, Evans told the group.

Weddings will be suspended. Grand juries will still meet. Bond court will remain virtually unchanged, except in cases where the defendant might have coronavirus, in which case the hearing will happen at the hospital.

More details are expected in Evans’ public announcement later Friday or Saturday. His office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Original story, published Friday at 11:45 a.m.:

The Cook County Circuit Court is considering closing due to concerns over the novel coronavirus COVID-19, sources have confirmed to Injustice Watch.

In a meeting Thursday with the court’s 15-judge executive committee, Chief Judge Timothy Evans weighed various measures in response to the outbreak, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the meeting. The judges weighed various options, including a bare-bones approach to court matters, a 30-day complete court closure, and cameras that would allow judges to work from home while hearing cases, according to the sources.

Evans has not yet made a formal announcement and a spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Evans told the executive committee, composed of the presiding judges of the court’s various divisions, that funding was available if judges wanted to use cameras installed on their benches, which would allow them to work remotely. Some judges expressed discomfort with that idea since it only isolated judges from the risk of the coronavirus, while still requiring defendants, attorneys and clerks to appear in court, according to the sources.

Evans also heard suggestions from the presiding judges. One option considered was a 30-day court closure that would likely be treated the same way the court treats a holiday, where only central bond court and juvenile court are in session. Another option was a skeletal approach in which all nonessential court hearings would be postponed. In this approach, the courts would remain open but with a rotating fraction of judges hearing only the most immediate matters.

No decision was made in the meeting, and the presiding judges were told to discuss with their staff which matters were absolutely essential and which matters they could not do from home.

Another meeting of the executive committee has been set for Friday afternoon.

Keeping the courts open during the pandemic could be an issue for both health and due process, said Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, a sociology professor at Brown University and author of “Crook County,” a book about the Cook County court system.

Defendants and their relatives could be forced to choose between going to court and potentially spreading disease, or losing their bond, Gonzalez Van Cleve said.

“If you are a person charged with a crime or a supportive family member…you’re gonna go [to a hearing], hell or high water,” she said.

If jurors are calling in sick, then prosecutors could push harder for plea bargains, she said.

“There’s so many levers at work [for prosecutors],” Gonzalez Van Cleve explained. “This would be an additional lever that would all but squelch the ability to choose a jury trial.”

As for a potential backlog of cases and overcrowding in the jail if the courts were to close, Gonzalez Van Cleve says that police will need to work closely with other officials to reduce arrests. “If we stop the cases from flowing in, then we don’t have the backlog,” she said. “The prosecutor, the police, the mayor, they need to start thinking about how they’re using these resources.”

On Friday, the Illinois Department of Corrections announced it would be suspending all visitation to state prisons beginning Saturday, March 14, “until further notice,” spokeswoman Lindsey Hess said in an email. She added that the agency is “expanding opportunities for video visits and phone calls” and that there are currently no confirmed COVID-19 cases in an IDOC facility. Illinois Public Radio reported earlier Friday that at least 55 men in Menard Correctional Center in downstate Illinois were being quarantined for flu-like symptoms and that IDOC is not currently testing anyone in state prisons for coronavirus.

The Illinois Supreme Court released a statement Friday afternoon encouraging local courts to postpone court events or conduct hearings by phone or video call if possible. The Supreme Court will livestream oral arguments scheduled to take place on March 17 and 18.

Other justice system agencies in Illinois began implementing measures in response to the coronavirus outbreak earlier in the week. The 18th Judicial Circuit Court in DuPage County suspended ceremonies for marriages and civil unions and the Domestic Relations Division of the Cook County Circuit Court moved parenting classes online and began conducting Family Mediation Services over the phone.

The Cook County jail announced additional restrictions on visitation Thursday, according to the Cook County Sheriff’s website. The jail will not allow entry “if indications are that a visitor is a possible carrier of the Coronavirus.” Detainees are now limited to one visit by one person per week, for at most 15 minutes.

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