Everyone In the Cook County Criminal Court System Too Busy Pointing Fingers To Fix Its Antiquated Records System
from the carbon-paper?--seriously? dept
When you write regularly about lawsuits, you learn very quickly that not all court systems are equal when it comes to allowing modern access to public filings and records. The country is a veritable panoply of an access spectrum, with some districts offering modern e-filing systems and websites to review documents, while other districts are far more antiquated and restrictive. That said, it’s hard to imagine a county court system more backwards than that of Chicago’s Cook County.
Every workday, attorneys enter criminal courtrooms across Cook County, put away their smartphones and operate in a world that their grandparents would have recognized: accordion-style Manila folders to hold paper documents, handwritten orders for judges to sign, even carbon paper to make copies of the paper filings.
“God help us all if the carbon didn’t take,” said defense attorney Alana De Leon, who had never used the outdated copying method — invented more than two centuries ago — before setting foot in a West Side branch court a few years ago.
While the Tribune article notes that these antiquated techniques result in derisive jokes from the attorneys forced to use them, the reality is that they are no laughing matter. The article tells the story of a woman looking for filing information for her boyfriend’s criminal court case and was forced to travel 14 miles just to find out what charges her boyfriend was facing. And this sort of thing isn’t reserved for the lay public. Criminal defense attorneys must also make a similar trek just to find out the basic case information for any clients they may take on in Cook County as well. In the surrounding counties, this information would be available via e-filings via an internet connection. In Cook County, home to the third largest city in the union, its all physical filings and carbon copies.
Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, in charge of this love letter to the days of robber barons, does not want to hear you blame her for any of this, however.
Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown bristled at the suggestion that her office has been slow to adapt to the internet age, telling the Tribune in an hourlong interview last week that a complete overhaul of the criminal case management system is expected to be completed by March 2019. Brown spoke of an “interactive” system in which much of the work performed by attorneys and judges in the courtrooms could be done electronically. Brown said her ultimate goal is to end the reliance on ink and paper.
While that may all sound good, if quite late, it’s worth noting that Brown is the same Clerk that has gone to court to block press access to e-filings in recent weeks.
Dorothy Brown, Chicago’s elected court clerk, filed her appeal notice this week, challenging a ruling in early January by U.S. District Judge William Kennelly. The judge found the First Amendment prohibits the clerk from withholding new efiled complaints, a regular source of news, from the press corps. He gave the clerk 30 days to provide access.
She made no move to comply and continues to argue that she must first screen the filings for confidentiality. In his 16-page opinion, Kennelly found that argument belied by a number of effective alternatives available to the clerk.
It’s moves like that which create the impression that the lack of transparency that comes along with Cook County’s laughably anachronistic records systems is a feature rather than a bug. Cook County has long been a place where county and city officials have played a game of subterfuge with the press and the public, hiding legal machinations as well as actions taken by the city, such as million dollar payouts to the families of victims of police shootings. Making the court system as opaque as possible for as long as possible seems to be the goal.
Brown, of course, insists otherwise and blames the state Supreme Court and Chief Judge Timothy Evans for Cook County’s woes.
Brown said her hands have been tied by the Illinois Supreme Court dragging its feet in allowing e-filing statewide in criminal cases for the first time just last year. She also blamed Chief Judge Timothy Evans’ office for blocking her from making basic docket information available online for criminal cases.
In an email, however, Evans’ spokesman, Pat Milhizer, denied Brown’s claim, saying his office would consider any such proposal from the circuit clerk.
Many will say this all smells of classic Chicago machine politics. And, in many respects, it certainly comes off that way. The suburban counties all have modern e-filing systems in place, after all, including several rural counties that don’t have nearly the breadth of resources afforded to Cook County. What should be kept top of mind, however, is the tax all of this puts on the public and its interest in justice in the county. Going back to defense attorney De Leon and the use of technology as outdated as carbon copy:
“To a certain extent … the lack of transparency kind of is the ugly product of the old system,” De Leon said. “I don’t know if it’s necessarily on purpose — to keep this information away from the average citizen — but it certainly is a consequence of that.”
And no amount of CYA or finger-pointing should distract anyone from the obvious reality that the public is not being well-served by the Cook County court filing system.