Remote Hearings Will Play Big Role As Illinois Courts Reopen

By Celeste Bott
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Law360 (July 1, 2020, 7:48 PM EDT) -- Illinois state courts staring down a backlog from the coronavirus pandemic have geared up their work on plans for how to safely reopen, and remote hearings will continue to play a significant role in court operations for the foreseeable future.

On June 30, the Illinois Judicial Conference announced the creation of a task force that will study how to safely resume court operations as the state gradually begins to reopen businesses and ease COVID-19-related restrictions. The task force is made up of members of the IJC — which is working to implement a three-year plan to guide the future of Illinois' judicial branch — and will make recommendations to the Illinois Supreme Court.

There's no set timeline for getting the recommendations to the high court, but task force members are going to work as expeditiously as possible, Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP partner J. Timothy Eaton, who is chairing the IJC task force, told Law360 on Wednesday.

One of the task force's most urgent concerns is making sure people feel safe going to courthouses throughout the state, he said. That can involve developing protocols to ensure mask wearing and social distancing and to limit general congestion by preventing crowded elevators or courtrooms.

"We're going to address some of those issues right away," Eaton said.

Since mid-March, the business of Illinois' courts has largely been limited to emergency and essential matters.

Individual circuit courts in Illinois can set their own timetables and customize plans. The Circuit Court of Cook County will begin conducting more court proceedings on July 6, although most matters will still be held remotely via videoconference, according to an order from Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans.

That's possible in part because the Illinois Supreme Court in May changed its policy on remote hearings to provide that a court can allow case participants to participate in civil or criminal matters remotely, including by telephone or videoconference, either upon request or by the court's own decision.

Eaton said the task force will explore the possibility of allowing potential jurors to be questioned remotely, rather than having to report to the courthouse for a jury summons.

"We're looking at the possibility of doing that remotely through technology. Maybe have attorneys ask questions through Zoom or whatever mechanism it might be," he said. "If we can avoid having people come to the courthouse in large numbers during this crisis, that's a good thing."

Among the factors the task force will consider include how technology could be used for jury selection and trials, how hearings may be held remotely in civil and criminal cases and the logistics of keeping court employees, litigants and the public safe.

"The Illinois Judicial Conference helped established the court's vision statement to be trusted and open to all by being fair, innovative, diverse and responsive to changing needs," Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne M. Burke said in a statement Tuesday. "That statement looks prophetic after the events of 2020 and this group will help us achieve those goals."

Other members of the task force include Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx, Chicago Bar Association President Maryam Ahmad and Illinois State Bar Association President Dennis J. Orsey, along with a number of other attorneys and judges from throughout the state.

In late May, the state's top court authorized chief circuit judges to develop their own plans for resuming operations in their respective courts, but said those local plans "should continue to promote the use of remote hearings where appropriate."

Courts should plan to "triage" and prioritize cases, requiring "meaningful action at every court appearance," according to guidance issued from the high court.

The state's new remote appearance rule covers all nontestimonial court appearances. The high court heard oral arguments slated on its May docket via Zoom, the recordings of which have since been posted on the court's YouTube channel.

The court has left many decisions up to individual circuits, because each one is different, and some are likely more backlogged than others, Eaton said. Some downstate courts have already begun addressing their backups, while others, such as Cook County, have not yet reopened.

In Cook County, Judge Evans said in a June 26 order that no jury trials in criminal or civil proceedings will go forward until further order, but other noneviction matters in civil cases can proceed.

In criminal cases, defendants pleading guilty can proceed to a sentencing hearing, and those who plead not guilty and opt for a bench trial can proceed to trial in person or via videoconference. Cases involving traffic tickets, misdemeanor charges and bail hearings will continue to be dealt with through videoconference, according to the order.

--Editing by Stephen Berg.

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