Cook County Circuit Court judges and court employees have been told to work remotely and all criminal trials have been suspended in an effort to help stem the spread of COVID-19.
Most court proceedings have already been held virtually since the onset of the pandemic in March, but the new order from Chief Judge Timothy Evans now holds that even those few employees who were going into courtrooms to work must now work elsewhere except in “extraordinary or compelling circumstances.”
“These actions are needed to protect public health, as we continue to monitor this pandemic,” 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.”
Only those performing “essential operations,” will be allowed into the courts, though the order does not infringe on the discretion of individual judges to conduct a teleconference or videoconference from their courthouse.
The court system has been put under additional strain from the pandemic, as more than 50 court employees and five judges have tested positive for the disease just since the start of November. In total, 173 court employees have tested positive throughout the pandemic.
Bench and jury trials will not be held until further notice, but the order allows for plea hearings in criminal cases to be conducted via Zoom.
In an effort to limit COVID-19 spread in the Cook County Jail, Evans also ordered that all prosecutors and defense attorneys review their pending cases to decide if a “change of circumstances” would allow for certain detainees to be released from the jail.
The order states priority will be given to:
–Persons at elevated risk for contracting COVID-19, due to age or underlying health condition
–Persons confined only on misdemeanor charges
–Persons confined on non-violent Class 3 or 4 felony charge who are eligible for probation
–Persons confined because they cannot afford monetary bond set in their cases
–Persons released on electronic monitoring who have been compliant with bail conditions
–Persons confined on a warrant or allegation of violation of parole or probation who are not charged with or suspected of a crime of violence
–Persons in jail or on electronic monitoring with no place to stay
As of Monday night, more than 200 jail detainees were positive for COVID-19, along with 52 correctional officers and 52 other Cook County Sheriff’s employees. Last week, 85-year-old Harold Graszer became the eighth detainee to die after testing positive for the disease.
According to the order, cases involving only traffic tickets or misdemeanor charges will no longer be heard in person. Those proceedings will be held over Zoom and parties will be notified of their next court date by mail.
Additionally, marriages will only be performed by appointment over Zoom.
Anyone seeking information about their upcoming court dates should visit the website of the Clerk of the Circuit Court in order to receive those details via email and text message. Information is also available by calling 312-603-5030.