Cook County Courts Go Virtual As COVID-19 Surges In Ill.

By Celeste Bott
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Law360 (November 24, 2020, 4:38 PM EST) -- Cook County's chief judge has ordered all court matters must be held by videoconference save for "extraordinary or compelling circumstances" as Chicago and the Prairie State face a continued surge of coronavirus cases.

Chief Judge Timothy Evans said Monday that all judges and employees of the court, beyond those performing essential court operations, must work remotely. Attorneys and self-represented litigants can participate in court proceedings by phone or video at the location of their choosing, but the court will provide space and equipment to litigants without access to the internet or a telephone, and reporters and interpreters will be able to participate in those proceedings remotely, according to the order.

No jury trials of any kind or bench trials in criminal cases will be held until further order of the court, the judge said. While jury trials were already on hold, bench trials had previously been allowed to move forward in Cook County if all parties agreed to them.

Plea hearings, status hearings and initial bail hearings must all be held via videoconference unless otherwise ordered by a judge, the order says.

"These actions are needed to protect public health, as we continue to monitor this pandemic," Judge Evans said in a statement. "Our system of justice has continued to hear all necessary and urgent matters, and today's order does not change that. I commend everybody in the justice system for their flexibility in this unprecedented period of history."

His order comes as officials announced more than 9,000 new COVID-19 cases and more than 100 deaths across Illinois on Tuesday. In Chicago, the coronavirus positivity rate is 13.6%, based on a seven-day rolling average.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Monday that he sees a "glimmer of hope" as cases and positivity rates begin to slowly decline, but public health officials warn those gains could be lost if Illinoisans travel and gather in groups for the Thanksgiving holiday.

On Nov. 12, the chief judge of Chicago's top court ordered that all civil case matters in the Northern District of Illinois must proceed virtually, closing district clerks' offices to the public through mid-January.

U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer said in a letter it was necessary to tighten the reins on courthouse activities in light of "marked increases" in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the district.

According to Judge Evans' order, any court proceedings that must be held in person should be staggered by date, time and floor to minimize the number of people in courtrooms and courthouses throughout the county.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys are also ordered to review their cases and determine whether a change of circumstances may support a change in bail that will allow defendants to be released, as the Cook County jail has seen large COVID-19 outbreaks.

--Additional reporting by Lauraann Wood. Editing by Ellen Johnson.

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