The coronavirus pandemic created immense challenges for the Circuit Court of Cook County. The court had to balance how to keep the public, judges, and court personnel safe from a lethal virus, while continuing to provide justice.
In thinking back on the last two years on this Law Day, I have been pleased and humbled at how creatively and effectively court staff and judges have met this unprecedented difficulty. The court never closed, and we learned new ways to do things that will improve access to justice going forward, even after the pandemic is a memory.
Soon after the pandemic’s onset, our staff outfitted every courtroom with Zoom technology to allow litigants and judges to interact remotely through teleconference. We discovered that not only did this aid in the disposition of cases, but it created new opportunities for those appearing before the court, eliminating the need for travel for minor proceedings, such as status hearings. Now judges are planning to extend the use of teleconference and video conference even after the pandemic for certain matters.
Improvements to the court’s audio and video equipment also had the benefit of improving and increasing capacity for extended media coverage and for digital presentation of evidence.
The court was creative and flexible in restarting jury trials this past year. Court personnel worked with government health experts to ensure safety and proper distancing and studied best practices from other courts.
Courtrooms were outfitted with clear, plastic shields, and accommodations were made to provide social distancing in jury assembly and deliberation areas. The courthouses are ready in case of a resurgence to continue with trials and other in-person proceedings.
One of the most significant changes was the court’s response to requests for increased and improved services for survivors of domestic violence. Funding provided by the Circuit Court of County will pay for additional personnel and equipment, including 40 laptop computers, to boost current operations and ultimately to facilitate 24/7 access to orders of protection for these cases.
Our court recognizes that petitioners in Domestic Violence cases are often undergoing tremendous stress and may face physical danger, and they cannot wait for regular business hours to obtain emergency protective orders.
We have been encouraged that despite the pandemic, our Restorative Justice Community Courts and Problem-Solving Courts have continued to help people charged with low-level offenses get second chances. Conducting proceedings by Zoom did not interfere with people getting the guidance they needed.
These last two years have shown that the courts can adapt to difficult circumstances through technology, ingenuity, and the strong will to continue to serve the public.