Will County's new courthouse opens; facility is large enough for jury trials to begin again

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Few sectors of American life have been hit harder than criminal justice, where face-to-face dealings are a staple of the legal system. Courthouses essentially closed in mid-March when the country shut down to help prevent the spread of COVID. Some are back up and running at lowered capacity. Will County's new courthouse opened Monday.

"We have something like 200,000, square feet more over here than we had at the current courthouse which has been too small since 1970s," Will County Chief Judge Richard Schoenstedt told the I-Team.

That extra space will allow enough social distancing so that jury trials can start up again. The first one is scheduled for November 16th.

"What we're doing is we have enough courtrooms here that we can adjust the judge's schedules. So that, for instance, we can do one jury, we can do a jury trial in a courtroom, try the case. We can't use the jury deliberation room because it's too small. But what we can do is the next door courtroom can be used instead, as the jury deliberation room," said Chief Judge Schoenstedt.

The courthouse can handle three to four criminal jury trials and two civil jury trials per day during the pandemic according to the Chief Judge. Some pre-trial hearings will continue to be virtual.

"This is a very, very tech efficient courthouse. We had it wired for just about everything we could think of," said Schoenstedt. "There are a lot of ways that we can keep people from having to come down here unnecessarily... things that we've learned during this during this pandemic...that is basically the statuses for agreements, for things that are relatively easy, the non-contested matters. It's going to be something that I think will carry over."

An I-Team survey of other counties shows DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry are also doing jury trials on a limited basis. Cook County is not.

"We do need to strike that balance between keeping everybody safe, which is our priority, along with we're required to provide legal services, judicial services to the citizens of this county, and we need to get back to business...when we can do it safely. But in this building, we have a lot more options to get that done," Schoenstedt told the I-Team.

Jury trials at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse were halted last week after some courthouse employees and visitors recently tested positive for COVID-19. For the feds here, and for Cook County, the road back to normalcy will be long and complicated.
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