Illinois Stay-At-Home Order: Cook County looks at resuming some court proceedings after May 31

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Since COVID-19 took down regular operations of the nation's second largest court system, thousands of Cook County criminal and civil cases have been put on ice.

The ABC7 I-Team has learned restrictions could start melting in June.

"Discussions are underway on the resumption of certain types of court proceedings throughout the Circuit Court of Cook County," Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans said Monday in an email statement to the I-Team. "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."

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According to Evans, whose office oversees the operations of 400 judges in Chicago and 126 suburbs, there are "ongoing discussions" with "the health of everybody inside a courthouse" paramount. As limited re-opening talks continue, and have not been finalized, Judge Evans said that they are focused on the use of "face coverings, social distancing and flexibility for those who cannot attend court due to illness or exposure to illness."

Emergency functions of the county court system and criminal bond hearings for the newly arrested have been done via videoconferencing. That apparently will continue.

"The court is also seeking to secure additional Zoom licenses, so that more proceedings may be conducted via videoconference and live streamed via the court's YouTube channel," said Evans.

He said that Cook County is also awaiting guidance from the Illinois Supreme Court before final decisions are made.

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Federal courts are struggling through the coronavirus shutdown, also cancelling all jury trials and having to handle necessary criminal hearings by phone or videoconference.

"This virus has wreaked havoc on many aspects of our court system, but one of the hardest is the immigration courts," said ABC7 legal analyst Gil Soffer, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago. "We already had an enormous backlog. Those are proceedings that are very difficult to handle remotely. And so we're just going to have to wait for this to lift before a lot of those cases can be handled. And I think that means an explosion of work, and it's going to take a lot of time."
For at least 37,000 immigration detainees, that means being locked up. Civil rights advocates are continuing a push for their release as long as the viral crisis is raging.

"Immigration detention in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic is posing much more heightened danger than it ever has before," said the host of a recent webinar by the American Immigrations Lawyers Association.

As low-level criminal offenders are released from the Cook County Jail and other facilities across the country, detained immigrants are not, even though they are being held civilly. The difference is the country's 68 immigration courts are under the thumb of the Trump administration that has been unwilling to close them down or stop deportation proceedings even during a pandemic.

For the detained, hearings are going forward. Immigration proceedings have been curtailed only for those people not currently locked up.

Immigration system critics contend keeping those courts open poses health risks for the detainees and official personnel including lawyers and judges.
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