September 22, 2020
The Circuit Court of Cook County is the largest of the 24 judicial circuits in Illinois and the second largest unified court system in the United States. The Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County is responsible for most of the administrative functions of the Circuit Court, including:
- Maintaining case files and dockets;
- Supporting judges in their courtrooms;
- Processing payment of court costs, fines and fees;
- Providing information (online and in person) to self-represented litigants and the public on navigating the court system;
- Publishing standard forms for the use of attorneys and litigants and providing access to Illinois Supreme Court standardized forms where they exist;
- Maintaining data on court operations, case filings, case outcomes, and costs; and
- Managing a staff of some 1,400 employees spread across several dozen courthouses, records units, and other facilities.
The Clerk of the Circuit Court answers to a number of constituencies: judges, attorneys, litigants, jurors, researchers, and the public.
For the past two decades, the office has lagged in technology, customer service, efficiency, and transparency, among other shortcomings. There has not always been sufficient cooperation or coordination between the Circuit Court Clerk’s Office and the judges whom it supports. The COVID-19 pandemic, which has shown the Clerk’s Office to be unprepared for responding to the need for rapid retooling for remote court hearings and service to the public, also has highlighted the need for significant changes and improvements.
With a new Clerk of the Circuit Court scheduled to take office on December 1, 2020 – for the first time in 20 years – the change in leadership presents an opportunity for reform and modernization of the Cook County Court Clerk’s Office. In the months leading up to the March 2020 Illinois Primary election, the candidates for Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County raised numerous issues for improvement of the Clerk’s Office in interviews and candidate forums, including two forums hosted by Chicago Appleseed, the Chicago Council of Lawyers, (with the American Constitution Society - Chicago) and by the Civic Federation in January and February of 2020, respectively. The three organizations partnered on this paper to provide recommendations for the next Clerk of the Circuit Court based on issues identified through campaign debates and interviews with groups familiar with the Cook County Courts.
The Civic Federation, Chicago Appleseed, and the Chicago Council of Lawyers present the following recommendations for evaluation and improvement of the Clerk’s Office’s operations to the candidates running for Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County in the November 2020 general election.
The next Clerk of the Circuit Court should reimagine the Clerk’s Office’s purpose to be public-facing, fundamentally community-oriented, and accountable. This report contains suggestions to meet those goals.
In the past, the role of the Clerk of the Circuit Court was conceived largely as a document repository for the Cook County Circuit Court. While maintaining case files is still a key function of the job, it is only the beginning. Now is the time to make those files – and the statistical data that is or could be generated from those files – widely available to the public via usable online docketing and case management systems, as well as FOIA-level transparency for data requests from the public and researchers. The Clerk’s Office and the data to which it has access can play an important role in examining the performance of the Cook County court system. The Clerk of the Circuit Court also manages income of approximately $80 million in various court fees, fines, and costs, which requires a 21st century system of both accounting and accountability for those funds.
Towards those ends, we suggest the following reforms be prioritized within the Clerk’s first 30 days, first 180 days, and first year in office. While we understand this is an ambitious timeline for the new Circuit Clerk to implement, we hope that by publishing this report well ahead of the date the incoming Clerk of the Circuit Court is scheduled to take office, the incoming Clerk will have ample time to begin planning for the operational changes that will be necessary for efficiency, effectiveness, and equity for people interacting with the Circuit Clerk’s Office.
First 30 Days:
- Initiate an office-wide audit, including a desk audit to review staffing levels, office functions, and needed efficiencies.
- Draft an updated mission statement.
- Initiate plans to create the following new positions:
- FOIA Officer
- Chief Accessibility Officer
- Chief Public Service Officer
- Establish an emergency and remote operations plan for the Clerk’s employees to ensure continuity in the event of further COVID-19-related or other emergency courthouse closures.
First 180 Days:
- Undertake a comprehensive review of technology systems, including the Clerk’s website, e-filing system, and case management system.
- Undertake a comprehensive financial audit and review of Special Purpose Funds.
- Review and revise performance metrics for the office.
- Create an Office of Data Management to ensure transparency and availability of data concerning court performance, Clerk’s Office operations, and financial management.
- Comply with Shakman conditions to achieve substantial compliance with Consent Decree requirements and eliminate patronage-based employment decisions.
- Finalize negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement for office staff.
- Assist the courts in enhancing their capacity to hold remote court hearings.
- Establish stronger Inspector General oversight by referring all complaints to the Cook County Independent Inspector General.
- Release a comprehensive, data-rich Annual Report regarding Clerk’s Office operations and collection and disbursement of funds.
- Support and assist in installing a court recording system in every courtroom in Cook County and provide public access to digital recordings.
- Reorganize the office, its priorities, and its staffing levels in various divisions as recommended by the office-wide audit.
- Advocate for a change in Illinois Statute to make the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County subject to FOIA.
The Elizabeth Morse Charitable Trust’s generous support for the Civic Federation’s criminal justice program helped make this report possible.