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Cuts will cause 'major disruption' in courts

Monday, February 05, 2007
Daily Law Bulletin
by Pat Milhizer

ook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart painted a doomsday scenario Friday of what proposed budget cuts would mean to his office, saying courthouse security is already ''razor thin'' and reductions would be ''incredibly dangerous.''
Under program and personnel cuts in County Board President Todd Stroger's proposed 2007 budget, Dart faces a $10.9 million reduction that would lay off 236 deputies assigned to courthouse security.
''If these cuts are put into place, the bottom line is that the sheriff's office will not be able to guarantee the safety of judges, attorneys and the public in our court facilities,'' Dart told county commissioners during a meeting of the board's Finance Committee.
''In the last week, I've been hearing at length from lawyers and judges about just how bad things are now and how bad they will be. So this is something that objectively will cause major disruption in the courtrooms and in our entire court proceedings throughout the county.
''I just can't emphasize it enough. This is incredibly dangerous what we're talking about doing here. It's just something that cannot happen,'' Dart said.
Security levels are already too light, Dart said.
''And sure, you know, I'm still a lawyer,'' Dart said. ''Lawyers do have a tendency to over-dramatize every once in a while. But when you talk to them about the security issues. It's very real.''
For example, Dart called the Child Support Enforcement facility at 32 W. Randolph St. a ''madhouse.'' He said the proceedings there should be immediately transferred to the Richard J. Daley Center, which is a half block away.
Earlier this week, Dart sent a letter to Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans indicating his concern.
Dart wrote that, given the emotionally charged nature of the cases, there have been a few violent incidents. In one instance last year, a mother leaving court was beaten in an elevator by the father of her child.
The beating was ''so bad that he broke every bone in her face. We have no security on the first floor. We have no security at the elevator,'' Dart told commissioners.
Evans said he wrote back to Dart on Thursday to let him know that he is concerned about security, and he's already looking for alternate space. Evans said that he decided, before Dart was elected last year, not to renew the lease at 32 W. Randolph St. when it expires on March 31.
''I welcome the opportunity to meet with [Dart] to discuss it,'' Evans said. ''I've been meeting with a committee from The Chicago Bar Association and working with that committee in finding alternate space for those proceedings,'' which could be the Daley Center.
Dart said judges have asked him how his office decides which courtrooms will get certain levels of security. He said his office determines which courtrooms could be considered volatile given the cases they handle, but he used an example of a recent tragedy to point out the unpredictability of the issue.
In December, a man upset with a patent lawyer entered the law firm of Wood, Phillips, Katz, Clark & Mortimer. He fatally shot two attorneys and one firm employee.
''Who in God's name would have expected a patent case to blow up where somebody was going to take a gun and kill an attorney and two other people? So, it's so unpredictable that I couldn't sit here and say with any certainty, 'We can leave these courtrooms empty. This one's OK to be empty,' '' Dart said.
As the meeting stretched into the lunch hour, commissioners expressed concern about many of the proposed cuts, including courthouse security. Commissioner Michael B. Quigley said he understood that Dart did not want to show his hand, but Quigley eventually wants to know exactly what cuts Dart would accept.
''We're not going to be able to restore every [proposed cut],'' Quigley said. ''But as these amendments get drafted, they tend to need great specificity.''
Later in the meeting, Commissioner Jerry Butler proposed an unspecified tax increase and asked Dart whether he would support it. Commissioner John Daley tried to deflect the question because he said no other elected officials had been asked that during their budget hearings.
''When it's your turn to do it, you do it the way you want to do it,'' Butler told Daley. ''I'm going to ask the question.''
Dart replied that if the county is comfortable that it has cut budget fat and employees who do nothing, he could support a tax hike for public safety initiatives.
Dart also said that up to $2.5 million could be generated if his office gave judges control of the county's electronic monitoring system. The money would come from a daily fee the county would charge offenders whose whereabouts are monitored.
''I want us, the jail, to get out of the business of selecting people (for electronic monitoring). I want the judges to do that,'' Dart said.
Cook County is the only government in the country that has its sheriff's department decide who is a good fit for electronic monitoring, Dart said.
''I'm shocked. Stunned,'' Quigley responded, drawing laughs from the audience.
Concerning the electronic monitoring proposal, Evans said he ''would be happy to receive whatever information [Dart] wants to provide for that. But this is the first time I'm hearing this.''
Despite all the bad news presented at the meeting, Dart told commissioners that his department will be getting a useful service for free. Jenner & Block LLP has offered to analyze lawsuits facing the office.
The goal, Dart said, is to ''manage the cost side of it but also to try to get out in front of these things so we can see the trains coming at us.''
In other budget news, a Stroger assistant sent a letter Thursday to the union that represents assistant public defenders. As of March 5, the letter states, public defenders will be restricted to a four-day workweek.
And for any 10 weeks between March 5 and the end of the year, defenders can work only three days a week.
A union representative indicated that the proposal violates its contract that is in effect until November 2008, and the union will take legal action to fight the order, according a news release.

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