January 28, 2019
As we emerge from the grip of the “polar vortex” that froze our state and much of the Midwest for the last 48 hours, there is good reason to reflect on what this means for the third branch of government and how we can be best prepared for operation of court functions in the 21st Century. Predictions are that severe weather occurrences, for example, will become more frequent and more severe. Courts in hurricane zones likely would not argue with that premise. Regardless of the causes your personal beliefs may pin on this phenomenon, we as a court system need to be prepared for extreme weather occurrences and other emergencies so that disruption to our public service role can be minimized.
The 2018 Annual Meeting of the national Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators in Newport, Rhode Island was entirely devoted to the issue of court emergency-preparedness and disaster planning. Among the panels of speakers were court officials, including the Chief Justices from Texas, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, as well as the Florida State Court Administrator, who talked about their experiences maintaining operations in the aftermath of recent natural disasters across the country.
The Illinois Supreme Court has put in place a number of measures on this issue, including the Supreme Court Emergency Closing Policy and Procedures, which was adopted a number of years ago to establish protocols for the closure of courthouses and other court facilities to ensure the safety and welfare of judicial branch officials, employees and the public. Many Illinois courts utilized this policy to authorize closure of courthouses during this week’s extreme cold. Courts also have, on occasion, closed in accordance with the policy during significant snowfalls or other emergencies, such as broken courthouse water pipes and even bomb threats. The Supreme Court’s Office of Communications and Public Information, and the local courts, have enhanced public service announcements of closures to include the Supreme Court website scroller, as well as posts on the Court’s Twitter feed and Facebook page.
About 10 years ago, Illinois courts were prompted, if they had not done so already, to finalize an Emergency Preparedness-Continuity of Operations Plan (EP-COOP) to safeguard the court record, preserve access to justice, and ensure the safety of court users and staff in the event of a catastrophe or disruption. The Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts assists courts with annual updates to these plans.
Whether courthouses are closed for a day or two for weather or in the unlikely event of a catastrophe necessitating a long-term system disruption, recent Illinois court technology enhancements will help to maintain the flow of courthouse activity, even though the bricks and mortar courthouse may be closed. Court users can continue to e-file documents through e-FileIL, though they may not be accepted immediately without a clerk on site. Court users may also remotely access electronic records through re:SearchIL, though this is currently limited to judges, clerks, and parties to the case. Court employees can manage email and other communications through mobile devices and laptops, though this also may be limited depending on the ability to access information that is not cloud-based.
These limitations get back to the point of reflection – how can courts keep pace and deliver 21st century performance and high-level services with workplaces and structures that are mostly rooted in the 20th Century (or earlier)? Emergency situations – weather-related or not – do not stem the tide of core interests, such as due process and personal safety, as well as other important matters that the courts must address every single day.
Some courts, such as Florida and Texas, have found themselves at the forefront of emergency preparedness through necessity and having experienced major catastrophes first-hand. While Illinois may not have experienced anything on the scale of a Hurricane Harvey, our courts will continue to enhance our remote technological capabilities through e-business options – e-filing, e-record, e-citation, video remote services, digital recording of proceedings, etc.
One of the biggest challenges lies in how the work gets done and how to optimize the systems in which court employees work. Our courts are already challenged to recruit and retain qualified personnel that often find more “work-from-home” opportunities in the private sector. But moreover, we need to think about creating a more nimble and adaptive workplace, so that we are able to overcome disaster challenges and continue the work of the courts from any location. We will need to study the enhanced use of government cloud storage. Whatever the models we pursue, the Illinois court system will work together to maintain the highest standards of public service.