Declaring that an agency that still widely uses carbon paper could use a bit of reform, a trio of Chicago civic groups today unveiled changes they’d like to see the new clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court make after 20-year incumbent Dorothy Brown leaves the post in December.
Included is a top-to-bottom audit, expanded use of e-filing, a final end to patronage hiring, electronic recording of all court sessions and, yes, no more carbon paper, which the report says is still extensively used for key documents, even amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Read the report below.)report
Brown’s operation of the office has come under fire for years, and though she chose not to seek a new term, the report by the Civic Federation, the Chicago Council of Lawyers and Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice uses strong language in outlining the need for change.
“For the past two decades, the office has lagged in technology, customer service, efficiency and transparency, among other shortcomings,” it states. Even before COVID complicated office operations, the clerk’s prototype e-filing platform “has been riddled with delays, over-complexities, inefficiencies and downtime, to the significant frustration of many users.”
The report urges that the new clerk—Democrat Iris Martinez is running against GOP nominee Barbara Bellar—start with an audit designed to establish a clear mission statement and a framework on how to implement it at the lowest cost. The office likely can do with fewer workers, the report suggests, noting that while the number of workers has dropped 27 percent over the past decade, the number of cases filed is down even more, 43 percent.
Once that is done, the office needs to modernize and upgrade a case filing and tracking system that still operates like something from decades ago, the report says. The goal should be to create a case management system much like the PACER system used in the federal courts, a system that “would permit anyone, anywhere to search and access the docket for any Cook County case, and to view the case filings (pleadings, motions, orders and the like) for each matter.”
That could be easier said than done, since the Illinois Supreme Court has mandated the use of one digital provider, Tyler Technologies. “If this cannot be accomplished by Tyler Technologies, the clerk should work with the Illinois Supreme Court and the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts to seek alternatives,” the report says.
Equally difficult could be winning approval of a proposal to record and make available to the public all court sessions. That may not fly well with many judges.
Other recommendations are to make judges’ daily court calls available online (they’re now available only on paper schedules posted on courtroom doors), develop a remote operations plan and to hire a Freedom of Information officer, something that may require a change in state law. While Brown has improved compliance with the anti-patronage Shakman decrees, further work is needed, it says.
“We hope to see the new clerk embrace the office’s role in the Circuit Court—not just as a record repository, but as a true partner in advancing access to justice,” Malcolm Rich, who heads both the Chicago Council of Lawyers and Chicago Appleseed, said in a statement.
Civic Federation President Laurence Msall said in the same statement that reform is needed in “an office long plagued by inefficiency, patronage, and delays."
UPDATE 2 P.M.—A spokesman for Democratic candidate Iris Martinez says she's generally in favor of the goals laid out by the civic groups and will order an immediate audit if elected, but still is reviewing the individual proposals.