What to expect as Illinois courts reopen during the pandemic

Posted: 18 May 2020

 

As Illinois's civil courts scramble to adapt to public health measures during the global Covid-19 pandemic, a clearer picture is emerging of what court operations might look like through most of 2020—and perhaps beyond.

On May 13, a panel of clerks from three Illinois judicial circuits joined McHenry County trial court administrator Dan Wallis for a CLE roundtable outlining steps each court is taking to counter the threat of contagious disease. In ’Circuit Court Clerks: How to Reopen Court After a Pandemic,’ listeners previewed safety plans from clerks Ronda Yates of Marion County, Kim Stahl of Ogle County and Tammy Weickert of Rock Island County that differed in the details, but shared several key themes.

 

Use of videoconferencing technology

Crucial to most courts’ reopening plans is the adoption of videoconferencing technology such as Zoom, which allows case participants and judicial staff to interact from the safety of their own homes.

As Wallis noted, Illinois Supreme Court rules already allowed for the use of videoconferencing technology in trial proceedings prior to the pandemic. Rule 185 permits arguments to be made by telephone and videoconferencing if agreed upon by all parties, and Rule 241 specifically extends this option to the presentation of testimony in civil cases.

Stahl added that each court can decide which case types to standardize on the videoconference format. However, parties can still request that a case be heard in-person if videoconferencing is the default option—and the opposite is also true.

Though Ogle County uses Zoom as its standard videoconference platform, parties may also object and suggest another.

According to Weickert, Rock Island County courts hold a conference call by phone to formally schedule a hearing date. If participants agree on the date and time, hearings can be scheduled up to one hour beforehand. 

 

Operating virtual court appearances

While the panel unanimously agreed the clerk’s staff is responsible for hosting any proceeding conducted remotely, in-session hosting duties were split between the court reporter, judge and clerk, depending on the county.

In McHenry County, Wallis’ staff says his staff has experimented with using Zoom’s “waiting room” feature to enable virtual hearings in high-volume case types such as traffic court. At the designated appearance time, parties are directed to a public waiting room link posted on the court’s website. The clerk’s staff can then select them when they are ready to begin the hearing.

Once a videoconference begins, Stahl said, many things are conducted as if the parties were in court together. Ogle County mandates that the environment must be free of audio or visual distractions. The clerk’s staff also has the right to terminate the proceedings due to technical problems or disruptions.

“Disruptions are first addressed by muting,” Weickert said. “If someone becomes extremely disruptive, they may be ordered to pay attorneys’ fees.”

For public hearings, several clerks reported experimenting with or investigating the use of livestreaming via YouTube. While Stahl expressed concerns that public streams could be illegally recorded, Wallis said recordings could be audited in YouTube so the court could hand down punishment for violations. 

 

Procedural issues in virtual courtrooms

According to Weickert, Illinois’ transition to mandatory, statewide electronic court filing in 2018-19 prepared Rock Island County to manage exhibits in the new virtual courtroom. Emailed copies in PDF form were already required for each exhibit, and these copies are saved to a shared drive online so they can be accessed by the clerk’s staff.

Yates and Weickert said each of their counties are now able to sign proposed orders electronically if needed. 

 

In-person proceedings 

Though Wallis cited a study finding that 81 percent of U.S. residents have access to a computer or smartphone, he stressed that access to justice remains a paramount concern for the other 19 percent. “We’re using the virtual [hearings] as a tool,” Wallis said, “not a mandate.”

That means planning for safely reopening more courtrooms and administration buildings in compliance with public health orders.

In Marion County, security has enacted temperature checks for anyone entering the courthouse. Stahl said the Ogle County courthouse will soon implement a walk-through temperature check, and has already taped off public areas in 6-foot social distance markings and “so many [public health] signs you can’t see in.”

Use of face coverings inside court facilities is required under Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s public health order to address Covid-19, and Illinois courts are required to provide them to any staff that must still report to court buildings.

Weickert said workstations for self-represented litigants without computer access at home will be receiving new dividers, which will also contribute to privacy. The workstations will also be equipped with Zoom, so litigants can get help from staff without a face-to-face interaction.

 

Ensuring safety for jury trials

While none of the clerks was considering the use of remote jurors, several described measures like staggered seating and larger rooms to ensure adequate social distancing. In response to research suggesting that airborne transmission of SARS-Cov-2 may be more likely in smaller rooms with poor ventilation, Yates said Marion County has struck a deal allowing court employees to use a nearby church for jury selection. 

Participating in the Q&A portion of the webinar, Clerk Katie Blinkman said Champaign County had implanted virtual check-in and orientation for jurors, and used email and text to notify them of appearance times.

 

Reopening with caution

As is the case in many U.S. states, all modified court operations must comply with a state supreme court order, which is ultimately informed by public health orders issued by the governor. That makes it impossible for court staff to say when a broader slate of cases will resume.

“We’ve taken steps, and I know my chief [judge] is in contact with other chief [judges],” Wallis said. “And we’ll just wait and see.”

 


Story by Alex Braun. InfoTrack integrates with popular case management systems to simplify common litigation tasks.

 

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