Illinois Judges Association
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Northern  Illinois Courts Meet the Challenges of the Pandemic

Court systems throughout the world are meeting the challenges resulting from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Northern Illinois courts are no exception.  

The Illinois Supreme Court, which exercises supervisory authority over all courts in Illinois, issued an order in March, mandating the state’s lower courts establish temporary procedures to minimize the negative impacts of the virus, but also to continue in providing citizens with access to justice.  

In response to the global coronavirus pandemic, Illinois courts have taken significant measures – including the postponement of trials and the adoption of video or telephone conferences – to adjust to the disruption brought about by the contagion.  Judges across the state have embraced technology as a means to hold hearings and conduct other judicial business while obviating the need for gathering in courtrooms. Like other courts in Illinois, McHenry County’s Chief Judge James S. Cowlin has allowed judges in the civil and family divisions to use remote access procedures for certain court hearings. But the public also needs to know that, because access to the courts is a vital part of our democracy, emergency proceedings and matters affecting liberty continue to be heard in person in courthouses all over this state. This is necessary despite the risk of health impacts to those participating.

Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans recently extended the continuance of minor criminal and many civil cases through May but expanded the use of videoconferencing for necessary and emergency court matters. In addition, all detainees with bail hearings appear in court via video, shortening stays behind bars. Cook County evictions and foreclosures have been deferred. Kane County’s Chief Judge, Clint Hull, has issued a similar order, effective until May 4. 

Courts have shown flexibility. For example, DuPage County’s Chief, Daniel P. Guerin, has directed judges in his jurisdiction to waive a litigant’s appearance, whenever possible. And in the 19th Judicial Circuit in Lake County, Chief Judge Diane Winter, acknowledging of the everyday realities presented by the virus,  offered this directive: “During these unusual times [noting that health recommendations include daily washing of clothes worn outside the home] and recognizing that many items of clothing that are customarily worn in a courtroom need dry cleaning, I am temporarily relaxing the need to wear items such as suits, ties, and apparel that requires professional laundering.” 

Courts have dealt with emergencies before. When the Spanish flu struck, the United States Supreme Court curtailed its operations, meeting only to issue necessary orders and continue oral arguments until the crisis had eased. The National Center for State Courts considered history in issuing a planning guide for court emergency preparedness in 2007. That guide referred to, among other things, “concerns about a pandemic flu crisis.” 

“Despite the unprecedented disruption presented by the coronavirus, Illinois courts and judges have worked nimbly not only to minimize risk, but to keep the system running and ensure the rights of individuals remain upheld,” said Illinois Judges Association President Margaret Mullen. “Illinoisans should be proud.”