The Illinois courts — we’re not dysfunctional!

There is something odd about the tone of this e-newsletter from Illinois Chief Justice Lloyd Karmeier. It is ostensibly announcing good news about a significant funding increase for the Illinois state court system in 2020. But Karmeier takes a weird stab at his colleagues on other, “dysfunctional” state courts, as well as lamenting the same “dysfunction” of the other branches of government in his own state. The article itself is a fairly benign piece praising the court system’s new “workable” budget, but it is written with a bit more color than one might expect from a state chief justice.

Karmeier’s election to the Illinois Supreme Court in 2004 was rife with political intrigue, and I do not follow the Illinois courts enough to speak to his professional mannerisms or various political pressures on the courts of that state. Readers can judge for themselves whether I am reading too much into this.

It worked! Chicago lawyer who changed his name to sound more Irish is finally elected as a judge

This blog has followed the story of Phillip Spiwack, a Chicago-area lawyer who legally changed his name in 2012 to Shannon O’Malley. The reason for the change: he was planning to run for judge in Cook County, and recognized the stubborn reality that having an Irish woman’s name would be a valuable commodity at the polls.

Spiwack lost his first race in 2010 while using his original name. The next year, the DePaul Law Review published a study showing that Cook County judicial candidates with Irish and female names tended to have an advantage in judicial elections. Spiwack changed his name to Shannon O’Malley shortly thereafter, and then deliberately sat out judicial races for the next several cycles to circumvent a state law requiring candidates who undergo a name change within three years of an election to disclose their old names on the ballot.

The plan worked. O’Malley won his election last week, even though he refused to submit his qualifications to any local bar associations and therefore did not receive any bar recommendations.

O’Malley may or may not prove to be a good judge. But this whole episode speaks poorly of the low-information judicial voters in Chicago.

Cook County’s e-filing system continues to experience problems

Cook County’s efforts to implement an electronic filing system has run into its fair share of obstacles over the past year. Last November, the Courthouse News Service filed suit against the county, alleging that the clerk’s office was delaying the posting of public documents online, in violation of the First Amendment. In December, the Illinois Supreme Court gave the county a six-month extension to implement its e-filing system (half the time the county requested), and ordered it to commit all necessary resources to completing the transition. In January, a judge issued an injunction in the Courthouse News Service case which gave the county 30 days to develop a system that would give the press full access to newly filed cases.

After months of turmoil, the e-filing system is now in place. And people don’t like it. At all.

In theory, e-filing is supposed to increase access to the courts, enabling people without an attorney in civil cases to submit legal documents from a computer instead of trekking to a courthouse. But many paralegals and attorneys who find the mandatory platform confusing worry that it’s not user-friendly for people filing motions on their own. The system, launched July 1 by an Illinois Supreme Court order, also requires registrants to have an email address and an electronic form of payment, something advocates say can create barriers for low-income people.

Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown said she is working with the vendor, Texas-based Tyler Technologies, to make the platform more intuitive. But the changes need to be approved by the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts because they are part of a statewide program, Brown said.

“It’s been very challenging and difficult for our users as well as our staff,” Brown said. “We’re really asking our users to be patient.”

 

Chicago judge settles lawsuit over court layoffs

Late last year, the Cook County (Ill.) Board ordered the termination of nearly 180 county court employees, in light of rampant financial problems throughout the county. That action spurred Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans to file a lawsuit against the Board to enjoin the layoffs. Chief Judge Evans argued that even though the Board had power to set the courts’ budget, it did not have the authority to target individual employees for layoffs.

The Lake County Circuit Court agreed in December, issuing a temporary restraining order against the county to prevent the layoffs. Now, nearly eight months later, the parties have reached a settlement.

Both sides are claiming victory. The Board is saying that the settlement amount is “much lower than what was initially demanded” and that it will promote efficiencies in the court system. Chief Judge Evans points to the loss of only 22 jobs (as opposed the the initial 180), and his belief that “the lawsuit made clear that the county board had no authority to lay off court employees.”

Chicago judge, convicted of mortgage fraud, refuses to leave the bench

Cook County Judge Jessica Arong O’Brien, convicted by a federal jury of mortgage fraud and facing a sentencing hearing in October, has refused to step down from the bench and continues to collect her nearly $200,000 yearly salary. Now the state’s Judicial Inquiry Board has asked the Illinois Courts Commission to suspend her pay pending a full hearing on removal from office.

In a fascinating bit of chutzpah, O’Brien recently filed paperwork to seek retention in the upcoming election. That seems unlikely, but O’Brien is making a strong push for inclusion in the (already spacious) Cook County Judges Hall of Shame.

 

Illinois Supreme Court orders trial judge to stop sealing all filings in high-profile murder case

Judge Vincent Gaughan, who is presiding over a high-profile case involving the police shooting death of teenager Laquan McDonald, ordered that the attorneys for both sides file all motions and briefs directly with him. Late last week, the Illinois Supreme Court disagreed with Gaughan’s policy, ordering the judge to stop requiring the sealing of all documents.

The media covering the case is understandably pleased with the ruling.

Judge denies stay of injunction in Cook County records case; defendants appeal to the Seventh Circuit

This blog has been following a First Amendment challenge to the filing practices in the Cook County (Illinois) courts. In November, the Courthouse News Service filed a federal lawsuit, alleging that Cook County was violating the First Amendment by denying the press and the public immediate access to electronically filed civil cases. In January, the federal district court agreed, and issued an injunction giving the Cook County Clerk’s Office 30 days to implement a new procedure.

That procedure has yet to be implemented, and the federal district court has twice rejected motions to stay the injunction. Now the clerk’s office has appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the federal courts never should have heard the case under the abstention doctrine announced in Younger v. Harris. No word yet from the Seventh Circuit.

I have more extensive thoughts on this entire lawsuit here.