Law Day 2022

When the COVID-19 crisis hit, said Illinois Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis, the high court knew the problems it bred would be beyond the scope of just seven justices. The new world of the court system was not only about judges, either – it was also about litigants and lawyers and how they could work toward solu- tions together. The justices began working with leaders across the state, from chief judges of the trial courts to clerks’ offices. Although leaders may have been squared away in little boxes on a small screen, scat- tered miles apart, they felt more connected than ever. “People from all across the state could now, because of this new technology, talk about the crisis, the problems they were hav- ing and ask each other for solutions,” Theis said. “What happened in that

‘NECESSITY MADE US DO IT FASTER’ Although courts have seemingly adjusted well to new norms, there is still much to learn and needs to be met. Many say the pan- demic forced a re-evaluation of the courts’ technological prowess, or lack thereof. While judges have traditionally had a “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” mindset — as Chief Judge David Vancil of the 9th Judi- cial Circuit in Macomb put it — there appears to be a sense of open-mindedness surrounding remote proceedings two years after the system’s hand was forced. In March 2020, the Illinois Supreme Court came close to shutting down court operations, limiting them to “essential” op- erations. Eugene Doherty, chief judge of the 17th Judicial Circuit in Rockford, was at the forefront of figuring out how to move the courts forward as vice chair of the Court Operations During COVID-19 Task Force. Doherty said courthouses were struggling to figure out how to continue to do business in some manner without bringing people inside the building. Many did not have the infrastructure or the technology to do business remotely. “There was scrambling that went on all over the state,” he said. The 12-member task force was charged with lessening that scramble. Members had to deter-

moment was that we could collaborate and work togeth- er to come to solutions. That dynamic was amazing. It has never been there before. There are all these 102 counties and 24 circuits ... we’ve never had that kind of free-flowing, con- sistent communication.” Courts often better known for traditionalism than agility felt their perspective shift. “We realized we can change if we need to,” Theis said. “It’s just amazing that we

mine how technology might appropriately be used for jury selection and trials, as well as the use of remote proceedings in civil and criminal cases. There had to be particular regard to assurances of due process and the logistics of maintaining safety for court personnel, lit- igants and the public. “If you had convened the committee in January of 2020, and said we’d like to move our courthouses to have a remote capability in all of our court- rooms ... I think that commit- tee would still be meeting,” Doherty said. “Because it looked like a very daunting task until necessity made us do it faster.” Now, it seems, circuit courts have settled into equi- librium. “The question for the fu- ture is how many of the chang- es the court might decide to keep in one form or another, and how many will ultimately be repealed,” he said. Doherty said there are difficulties in offering a hy- brid model where people can

Mary Jane Theis Justice, Illinois Supreme Court

didn’t need to have the big courtrooms and big pillars in front of the courthouses or stairs leading up to the grand doors. We could actually do this essential work in a new way.” Other, unrelated shifts in the courts are occurring in tandem with pandemic adjustments. The state is preparing to implement a statewide pretrial service system, adjust to new appellate court districts and consider changes to the Code of Judicial Conduct. In day-to-day operations, hybrid courtroom operations could be the future of Illinois’ judicial system, several judges say. In coun- ties from Cook to Winnebago, a newfound reliance on technology revealed unprecedented ways of operating. The Supreme Court’s Illinois Judicial Conference recently created a Remote Proceedings Task Force charged with evaluating the state of remote proceedings and connecting best practices for virtual hearings from across the state. The next challenge will be ensuring courts have the technology and resources necessary to accommodate new functions. Another will be maintaining a sense of community when physical proximity isn’t forcing it. “The court as a place is not going away,” said Sanjay Tailor, Presiding Judge of the County Division in Cook County Circuit Court. “It just might be different. ... At 9:30 in the Daley Center, the elevators may not be as crowded as they used to be.”

Sanjay Tailor Presiding Judge, County Division, Cook Circuit Court

David Vancil Chief Judge, 9th Judicial Circuit


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