Cook County domestic violence court continues video proceedings under chief judge’s order

Court dates for survivors of domestic violence will continue via videoconference following an order signed Wednesday by Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans.

The order, announced Thursday by the chief judge’s office, means most appearances for emergency orders of protection and most routine motions and hearings will happen remotely until further notice. The order also stipulates that people whose cases were heard by the domestic violence division from July 26 to Aug. 11, who were scheduled for subsequent in-person appearances, will be notified of new remote court dates.

Advocates expressed relief after hearing the news Thursday. But some worried that there wasn’t enough time to contact everybody with a court date next week.

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“We’re grateful to the chief judge for intervening here to stop people from having to come to the courthouse during the resurgence of the pandemic,” said Teresa Sullivan, supervising attorney at Legal Aid Chicago. “Obviously, we’re still concerned given the timing of this order, and we’re still concerned about the risks that litigants will take in traveling to the courthouse on Monday.”

The domestic violence division has faced scrutiny from advocates who decry what they describe as barriers to access for survivors seeking emergency protection orders. The advocates also allege that Judge Raul Vega, the presiding judge who oversees the domestic violence division, has mistreated survivors in his court.

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Evans said he would consider reassigning Vega during a live talk show Aug. 3 with the Chicago Reader’s Ben Joravsky and Injustice Watch senior reporter Maya Dukmasova.

“I hate to think about removing a judge, but yes, ma’am,” Evans said in response to an audience question about whether he would remove Vega. “I think he’s a decent guy, but somebody said to me there may be some misogynism going on, and we can’t tolerate that in the court.”

Vega did not respond to requests for comment, and Evans did not elaborate on the allegations.

On Thursday, a spokesperson for Evans told Injustice Watch that his office is working to address the concerns of domestic violence advocates and ensure that the courts are accessible for emergency orders on a 24-hour basis.

The domestic violence court remained open for in-person and remote petition filings throughout the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, and for orders of protection. Many hearings went virtual with the option of on-site “Zoom Rooms” for participants unable to access a computer or telephone for virtual hearings. But survivors petitioning the court for civil orders of protection, no-contact orders, or no-stalking orders had to file by 3 p.m. to immediately seek the court’s decision.

Last week, Injustice Watch reported on changes underway at the domestic violence courthouse after Evans announced plans on Aug. 2 to establish 24/7 access to the courts for people facing domestic violence emergencies. Evans’ latest order clarifies an earlier order by Vega.

On July 26, Vega issued an order to begin in-person reopening of the division, though judges still had the discretion to conduct certain cases via videoconference, and hearings for emergency petitions for orders of protection could still take place remotely. Vega’s order was rescinded Aug. 2. But no further instructions were issued until Thursday, causing confusion, according to a spokesperson from the office of the chief judge.

While the chief judge’s order continues remote appearances for most court hearings, it excludes contested evidentiary hearings in which defendants have the opportunity to dispute allegations, bring witnesses, and cross-examine survivors.

Judges can still waive physical appearances in such cases if both parties consent. The order also grants judges discretion to require in-person hearings if they decide “that a remote proceeding would not serve the interests of justice,” according to an announcement from Evans’ office.

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