March 23, 2020
Preparation for this column, which I write every other month in rotation with the Chief Justice, usually begins with a few different ideas about relevant and timely topics in the Illinois courts. This month, of course, there is no more important story than the COVID-19 global pandemic. Up until just a few weeks ago, this virus was not exactly front and center on many of our minds. How quickly things change. And, sadly, the science tells us we are not near the end of this crisis.
During this unprecedented time of disruption to every aspect of our modern society, it is important to stay focused on the mission of the courts, as articulated in the 2019 Illinois Judicial Branch Strategic Agenda:
Our Mission: To protect the rights and liberties of all by providing equal access to justice, resolving disputes, and upholding the rule of law pursuant to the powers and duties entrusted to us by the Illinois Constitution.
Creating and Communicating Priorities
COVID-19 has forced hard decisions and is a daily test of leadership. There are few clear answers for how to balance an individual’s constitutional rights against the very real dangers posed by COVID-19 and the courts’ reasonable efforts, in response, to prioritize safe public health practices.
The Illinois Supreme Court has approached this challenge pursuant to its constitutional administrative and supervisory authority over all courts. Through a series of recent orders, as well as memoranda to its court personnel, the Court has issued state-level guidance on providing access to justice in a manner that mitigates, to the extent possible, the threat of exposure to COVID-19. The Court’s order directing the local courts to continue to hear only essential court matters and proceedings recognizes that essential court matters will look very different from county to county. In turn, the local courts deftly responded with their own orders detailing what the Court’s directives mean in their jurisdictions. The chief judges, as the administrative authority over their circuit courts, are to be commended for their tireless efforts and immediate responsiveness to the Court’s direction.
Using All Viable Options for Problem-solving
Like most of you, I now spend much of my day on conference calls, in compliance with the state and national orders to practice “social distancing.” Court officials and employees have fully embraced the notion that technology, more than ever, is truly our friend. Our capabilities to communicate remotely, whether it be via Zoom or good ol’ fashioned teleconference, have allowed for quick and well-reasoned decision-making to keep pace with situations that rapidly change. This works in concert with, and complement, other technology measures used daily in our court system.
The Court’s statewide e-filing initiative has allowed court filings to continue with minimal need for in-person contact. While the volume of case filings may not be at the usual level, essential matters are still being processed through the dedicated commitment and efforts of our Supreme, Appellate and Circuit Clerks and their staff. Mandatory e-filing means that thousands of court users have been able to conduct court business without visiting our courthouses and court facilities during this crucial time.
The Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts (AOIC) oversaw a computer refresh for reviewing court officials and employees that concluded in December 2019. This refresh provided a much-needed upgrade over the previous hardware, software and remote access infrastructure and has allowed for conferencing capabilities that are now being used to keep the courts running from outside our regular workspaces. We are incredibly fortunate and thankful that the AOIC Judicial Management Information Systems staff were able to complete this deployment ahead of the COVID-19 crisis.
Enhanced Communications and Training
The Supreme, Appellate, and Circuit Courts all have on hand an Emergency Preparedness and Continuity of Operations Plan (EP-COOP). With the events around COVID-19 escalating so quickly, courts have already benefited from having EP-COOP procedures at the ready to determine essential court functions and essential personnel to perform the duties to sustain and support those functions.
Over a decade ago, the Conference of Chief Circuit Judges compiled a benchbook on pandemic preparedness. The Conference has begun updating this document with information and lessons learned during the current pandemic.
Utilizing this pandemic benchbook and other resources, the Illinois Judicial College recently sprang into action to quickly assemble programming in relation to the COVID-19 outbreak. On March 19, the College presented a webcast entitled “Access to Justice & Emergency Preparedness in a Pandemic” to nearly 350 online viewers. All of us in the court system extend a well-deserved Thank You to the College, as well as the presenters, Chief Judge Eugene Doherty of the 17th Circuit and Trial Court Administrator Dan Wallis of the 22nd Circuit. This invaluable instruction on operating courts in these challenging times is now available on-demand for those who were unable to participate last week. The webcast can be accessed at https://www.pathlms.com/aoic/courses/16911.
As we move forward, the Illinois Supreme Court will continue to provide guidance and serve as a resource to inform the public of orders and announcements in all courts – Supreme, Appellate and Circuit – as they happen. Over 120 updates have been posted since the updates page went live on March 11. Please continue to send changes to Chris Bonjean, Director of Communications, and be sure to check for daily updates at http://illinoiscourts.gov/Administrative/covid-19.asp
These are just a few of the initiatives undertaken so far to support the court system and its mission through these tumultuous times. I want to thank everyone for their commitment and efforts to keep courts accessible while guarding the health and well-being of court staff and patrons. As one of our Supreme Court Justices stated recently, I have never been more proud of the Illinois Judicial Branch of government.