This is a developing story. Last updated on May 28 at 3:30 p.m.
Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans is set to extend his emergency coronavirus order suspending most court operations through July 6, a spokesman announced Wednesday.
Evans will issue an order Thursday that extends the court’s scale-back until July, while leaving open the possibility of reinstating some court proceedings sooner if conditions change. Gov. JB Pritzker has predicted that the number of Illinois cases will peak in mid-June.
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Two judges who spoke with Injustice Watch said they believe it is unlikely the courts will reopen any sooner than July 6. They said they are not aware of protocols in place to address the physical limitations of court buildings, particularly the high-rise Richard J. Daley Center in downtown.
“How do you get people, even just court staff, into the Daley Center while protecting them?” asked Judge Robert Balanoff, a judge in the court’s child protection division.
The current emergency order, which was originally set to expire on May 31, suspends all but the most essential matters. Traffic and misdemeanor cases have been postponed, as have eviction and foreclosure orders. Many of the hearings that do take place, including bond review hearings and juvenile delinquency hearings, are happening virtually, and most judges are working from home.
With most of the state moving into phase three of the governor’s reopening plan as early as Friday–and Chicago set to follow by early June–the Illinois Supreme Court has left it up to the chief judge of each circuit court to decide how to proceed in resuming a normal court schedule while maintaining public health.
“The circuit courts shall continue, to the extent possible, to allow for appropriate social distancing and attempt to reduce the number of persons appearing personally for court appearances,” Supreme Court Clerk Carolyn Grosboll wrote in an order last week.
Criminal defense attorney David Gaeger expressed concern about the considerable delays for defendants awaiting trial if the courts don’t open until July.
“We’ll be seeing delays well into next year,” he said. “A lot of these cases haven’t even been assigned a courtroom.”
Evans chose to extend the order to July 6 “to allow enough time for all justice system stakeholders to ensure that more proceedings will be conducted in a way that protects everybody,” spokesman Pat Milhizer said in an email. When normal court operations resume, proceedings will comply with best practices for face masks, social distancing, room capacity limits and “flexibility for those who cannot attend court due to illness or exposure to illness,” he said.
Since the emergency order took effect March 17, more than 111,000 criminal hearings have taken place, many over the videoconferencing program Zoom, Milhizer said. The county is in the process of acquiring 350 more Zoom licenses for the court so that more proceedings can take place virtually. The court currently has 50 licenses, Milhizer said.
Read more about how the coronavirus has affected court proceedings, prisons and jails here.