Illinois coronavirus: Thousands of cases stalled as Cook County courts remain closed in lockdown

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Jury trials are cancelled. In person hearings are postponed. Cook County is considering some modified reopening possibly in June, according to Chief Judge Tim Evans, but currently justice is being delayed for thousands of defendants.

"I am very concerned about my clients' rights to go to trial, and the right to a public trial. This has been very chaotic," said Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli.

"Crime it's not taking a COVID holiday," Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx told the I-Team. "And so for the last 8 weeks and counting that we have not addressed those cases. Those cases will still be there when the courts open."

Defense attorneys say they are trying to manage the uncertainty.

"Those in custody are just wracked with fear. What keeps me up at night are the voiced of my clients, and the pleas of my clients who just want to get out. And that's kind of our focus right now," said Tony Thedford, a criminal defense attorney in Chicago.

Judges say the backlog will be immense.

"Everything is being pushed back as far as possible. So, there's going to be a huge crash when we finally get back to work," said U.S. District Court Judge Robert Gettleman.

Former federal prosecutor and ABC7 legal analyst Gil Soffer said the right to a speedy trial, guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, is being nudged along by technology with some virtual proceedings through live video links.

"It's amazing what can happen in a county that's been so technologically challenged, where we're still using carbon paper, that we have zoomed into the 21st century by having ZOOM hearings," said Foxx.

Many courtrooms and court buildings are closed. According to emergency measures for Cook County, similar to others across the state, regular casework is delayed, postponed, being held by phone or by videoconference.

In federal courts, data reveal civil filings continuing at a normal pace, but hearings, decisions and regular case activity is down more than 40-percent.

Last week, District Judge Tom Durkin noted in one case filing that "It is certainly unlikely a civil jury trial can be held this year."

Chief U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer said in a statement to the I-Team that even working remotely, "Judges are receiving status reports, issuing opinions, and entering orders every day."

"We're going to have a huge backlog when we finally come back to work, whenever that is. And a lot of people are going to be waiting for justice," said Judge Gettleman.

What will courtrooms be like when the pandemic ends?

"It's not going to be so simple as flipping on a switch that first Monday and everything goes back to normal," Foxx said.

"How do you do your work without putting too many people together at the same time?" asked Soffer. "That requires adjusting schedules, requires staggering court appearances, requires any number of things, and it's going to take some real getting used to both by the judges, by court personnel and by everybody who appears in court."

"The parties who are in the courtroom will have to social distance, most likely wear masks. The clerk was concerned about people walking up to the clerk, who sits right next to the judge, and perhaps we're going to build maybe some sort of plastic divider there," said Campanelli.

"We're trying to remain on the ready to do what we need to do on our end, in order to assist our clients and their safety...making sure that their cases don't become a death penalty," said Thedford.

Never to be overlooked are the victims of crime who also wait. According to the state's attorney, victims are carrying anxiety about whether or not they'll see justice for the harm that has come to them.

Full Statement from Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans

Discussions are underway on the resumption of certain types of court proceedings throughout the Circuit Court of Cook County. Currently, the court is operating on its modified schedule through May 31, and emergency matters are being heard in civil and criminal cases. The court continues to monitor the pandemic and will make additional announcements, perhaps as soon as next week.

The ongoing discussions involve ways to conduct court proceedings in a manner that protects the health of everybody inside a courthouse. These conditions have not been finalized, but they would be consistent with best practices involving face coverings, social distancing and flexibility for those who cannot attend court due to illness or exposure to illness.

Needless to say, this is a significant task given the number of public entities involved and the courthouses' level of foot traffic that requires human communication and interaction to operate.

The court is also seeking to secure additional Zoom licenses, so that more proceedings may be conducted via videoconference and livestreamed via the court's YouTube channel. The court is also awaiting guidance from the Illinois Supreme Court before final decisions are made. In addition, Cook County is working with a consultant to provide guidance for movement of people in county facilities.

Full Statement from U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer

The U. S. District Court is very conscious of its responsibility to continue necessary operations in a challenging environment. Recognizing limitations imposed by the current health crisis and honoring guidance from federal, state, and local health authorities, on April 24, 2020, the court issued its Third Amended General Order 20-0012, which is currently in place.

The Amended General Order provides extension guidelines for criminal and civil cases, establishes emergency relief procedures, sets out electronic filing options, and suspends large public gatherings. The court remains open and accessible, however, and judges continue hearing emergency proceedings in both criminal and civil cases.

As reflected in the Amended General Order, the court recognizes and respect the rights of criminal defendants to a speedy and public trial under the Sixth Amendment. In situations where criminal proceedings cannot be continued, the Amended General Order provides for them to be conducted by an emergency judge.

Additionally, under the recently-enacted federal CARES Act, the court has authorized the use of videoconferencing, or teleconferencing if videoconferencing is not reasonably available, for certain criminal proceedings, so long as the defendant gives consent after consultation with counsel.

Judges, chambers staff, and Clerk's Office employees are working remotely. Judges are receiving status reports, issuing opinions, and entering orders every day.

Our court is one of the largest federal courts in the nation. The safety of the many members of the public-parties and their lawyers, jurors, court staff, witnesses, family members, and security officers-remain a primary concern. The court continues to closely monitor the public health situation, even as it begins the process of planning for additional proceedings to begin.
Decisions about that process will be made carefully and in consultation with federal, state, and local health authorities.
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