Incumbentdemocrat

Iris Y. Martinez

Candidate for Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court

Candidate Q&A

Why do you want to be Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County?

I was elected in 2020 by the voters of Cook County to bring transparency and access to the Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County during the height of a national pandemic. While we faced many challenges during my first term, I am proud of what my office has been able to accomplish and look forward to laying out those accomplishments below. I need at least one more term to fulfill my goals and promises to the people of Cook County, and I look forward to doing so.

Why do you believe you are the most qualified candidate?

I made history when I was elected as the first Latina Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County, one of the largest unified court systems in the world. Since taking office, I have focused on the mission of updating and increasing the use of technology and increasing transparency in the Cook County court system, while providing the proper COVID-19 safeguards at all court locations. Under my leadership, the Clerk’s office has achieved significant milestones, including exiting federal hiring oversight, complying with the Shakman decree, receiving a national award for our COVID-19 Attestation Management System (CAMS), and improving transparency and accessibility through the establishment of the first of its kind Call Center and digitizing court records. We have also addressed significant backlogs, processing over 5,500 expungement petitions and recalling over 11,000 old warrants.

Our newly established Domestic Violence Center provides a safe haven for victims to come forward and press charges against their perpetrators. Additionally, our upcoming expungement center aims to streamline the process for individuals seeking a fresh start. I worked with the Illinois General Assembly to protect the identities of child and adult sex crime victims. In 2021, l led legislation signed into law requiring anyone wanting to access restricted information related to the identities of sex crime victims to petition the court to obtain access to those documents.

I became the first Latina elected to the Illinois State Senate in 2003 and made history once again by serving as the first Latina Assistant Majority Leader from 2007-2008. As a state senator, Clerk Martinez advocated for affordable housing, expanding health care access, and improving care for seniors. I introduced several initiatives of importance to minority communities, championing a law allowing people who are not comfortable speaking or understanding English, as well as those who have trouble hearing, to get assistance from an interpreter in a courtroom. I also shepherded a law that ensured that all health care facilities treating Medicaid patients in managed care plans must develop and implement language services.

I have served as President of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators and am currently the City of Chicago’s 33rd Ward Democratic Committeeperson and Chair of the Hispanic Caucus for the Democratic National Committee.

Is the Clerk's piece of the court system working the way it should?

Yes, The Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County is more transparent and accessible than it has ever been before due to the hard work of the 1,400 employees in the office. However, there is room for improvement. The office has now been out of federal receivership for over a year, has moved past the federal investigations into some of my predecessor’s holdover employees, and now has a new labor contract, an award-winning website, a new on-site call center, and more records digitized than ever before. I look forward to all the positive change that our new initiatives such as our Expungement Center and our statistical justice tool platform will enable in Cook County.

Compliance administrator, Susan Feibus, was responsible for monitoring the Circuit Court Clerk’s office to ensure politics was not taken into consideration in most personnel decisions including hiring, firing and discipline of non-executive staff under the Shakman Decree. The federal oversight of the Clerk's office started in 2018 under then-Clerk Dorothy Brown and continued until 2022. (Brown did not run for re-election in 2020.) In her final report submitted to the court, Feibus did not conclude that compliance had been reached by the office in 2022. Instead, the monitor noted a U.S. appeals court ruling would compel a judge to terminate the court oversight. Feibus also noted ongoing issues at the clerk’s office including that the training on the employee handbook was “problematic” and lacking clarity. Feibus also noted in 2022 that the court clerk’s human resources department “remains understaffed.” What more does the Clerk's office need to do to go above and beyond the Shakman monitor's findings to improve on staffing and training?

The Shakman oversight predated my tenure. Discoveries with respect to staff and COVID-19 conditions made it abundantly clear that engineering reforms would be very challenging. Nonetheless, a plan of action had to go into effect immediately. My effort led to the federal court finding my office in substantial compliance with the Shakman requirements in just under 19 months. Judge Chang was clear in his finding that due to the creation and implementation of a new Employment Plan, acting in good faith to remedy instances of non-compliance, the absence of employment decisions based upon political factors, and the implementation of procedures preventing politics from interfering with the long-term operations of the office, that we more than satisfied what was required. More importantly, the Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court was finally going in the right direction in this regard.

Mr. Shakman and his attorneys agreed, according to their court filings.

Ms. Feibus’s concerns were in the process of being addressed and I note that the court understood our efforts to address all issues. Accordingly, the decision allowed the Human Resource Department to fully staff up. The referenced employee handbook evolved and improved. In accordance with my move to full transparency, all such information, and quarterly reports, are now accessible to the public on my revamped website: https://www.cookcountyclerkofcourt.org/shakman-compliance

The underpinning here was to hire a Human Resource structure with a robust training unit. This is now in place. A hiring and training plan is in place. A Compliance Director, to ensure independent assurance of training including, but limited to, ethics, sexual harassment, and policies, is in place.

While not mentioned in the question, but important to it, is the quality of a workplace. Very little changed in the 20 years that preceded my 1st term. The conditions I found in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic in January of 2021 were more than deplorable. Employees were crammed into congested spaces in dreary surroundings. Yards of obsolete metal file systems impeded ventilation in some places when public health guidance called for social distancing and proper HVAC ventilation. I am very proud to have partnered with my employees to make them the drivers of the physical transformation we embarked on.

Our COVID-19 Attestation Management System (CAMS) won national recognition (NACo Award) in 2023. One can improve staffing and raining but one must improve the public workplace in which these critical things play out.

Bail bonds were required to be refunded 4-6 weeks after a case is closed. But according to an August 2023 ABC 7 investigation, under-staffing (by more than 500 in an office of around 1400 people) was cited for delays in refunds. The clerk also lost 55 staffers in May of 2023 because of COVID Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) fraud allegations. Is the office fully staffed now and why has it been difficult to keep staff?

Upon taking office in January of 2021, I and my team discovered a backlog of cases and bond refunds. We were still within the COVID-19 pandemic, sick leaves and retirements were at high levels, and it was clear then that the pandemic had other impacts throughout the court system. There was collaborative work to do and it was done. People had to be hired. Systems had to be put in place. This is why we reorganized the existing staff and put together a plan to address Shakman court oversite. The lifting of the federal court oversight allowed a proper and transparent hiring plan to move forward. This allowed new staff to be hired and existing experienced staff to be promoted. This multi-point process brought needed relief to bail bond delays prior to the September 18, 2023 Pretrial Act eliminating cash bail.

With respect to the 50+ staffers fired in connection to the COVID Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) fraud allegations: The Circuit Court Clerk’s Office of the Inspector General is independent and charged with investigating fraud, waste, and misconduct within the Circuit Court Clerk’s Office. I was notified that employees that I inherited upon taking office, prior to my tenure, applied for PPP loans. The Clerk’s Office of the Inspector General then began to work with Cook County’s Inspector General to subpoena evidence and conduct an investigation. Findings in that investigation speak for themselves. The Clerk’s Inspector General’s investigative process is independent and confidential. I said then and I repeat now that I am committed to taking disciplinary action, including termination, against any employee found to have received PPP loans fraudulently. The actions taken were proper and did not impact operations in my office, just as they did not impact operation in other Cook County or City of Chicago offices. Yes, the office is well under way to becoming fully staffed.

What does it say to you when 4% of the clerk's staff is accused of bilking the government for PPP fraud?

Again, the Circuit Court Clerk’s Office of the Inspector General did its due diligence, notified me and appropriate authorities that employees that I inherited upon taking office, prior to my tenure, applied for PPP loans fraudulently and swift action was subsequently taken. This action began a prompt review of other Cook County offices.

What more can be done to recruit and retain law-abiding employees?

The Office of the Circuit Court of Cook County under my direction improved its hiring and screening processes regarding background checks and qualification. During my 1st term, we ensured that essential mechanisms were put in place to enforce the Cook County Ethics Ordinance. To create a healthy culture, expectations were outlined, and focused efforts are made to monitor compliance throughout the court environment.

In 2017, a law passed that requires the Circuit Court Clerk's office to provide records for appeals electronically. Where does the backlog stand and what can be done to expedite record scanning?

The Appeal process was implemented 07/01/2017. All records that had been prepared using the paper file and were not brought over to the Appellate Court by 06/30/2017, were converted to electronic if the customer was pursuing the appeal. Currently a backlog does not exist. The divisions are notified that a NOA was filed. They audit the file to make sure all documents are data entered and imaged. They send Civil Appeals a confirmation sheet when the file is ready for Civil Appeals to prepare the record on appeal.

Diversion programs allow people charged with a non-violent felony who don't have a previous felony record to complete a program in order to avoid having a felony conviction on their otherwise clean record. WBEZ found that for at least three years some people's records showed a felony despite finishing a diversion program. Both the Cook County Clerk and Cook County Chief Judge came up with a solution to ensure felony records are not entered incorrectly into records. Have all the records been fixed and if not, how do you think the fix should be expedited?

The Clerk’s office went through all of the records in question, and they have all been corrected. As for the direct responsibilities of this office, let’s be clear that our office is only the keeper of the judicial records. We do not create the record. The record is created by the Judge and the litigants.

In 1995, the Second District Illinois Appellate Court ruled that the administrative functions of the courts are not subject to FOIA — even thought the law states that “administrative” bodies are included. House Bill 2455 was introduced in 2023 to force the judiciary to respond to a FOIA request within five business days just like every other public agency in the state. It is supported by various organizations which formed the Court Transparency Coalition which states, “The entire Illinois court system operates without the basic transparency protections FOIA provides. Unlike every other government body in Illinois, the judiciary is not currently subject to FOIA, which means it has full discretion over what information it releases about its operations.” Given that discretion, do you believe journalists and researchers should be able to file Freedom of Information Act requests of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County to shed light on how the court system works?

Yes, My answer to this question is an unequivocal YES. In fact, during my first year in office, I sent my External Affairs Director to Springfield to try to push for an exemption for Circuit Court Clerks to be subjected to the Freedom of Information Act. Unfortunately, I did not have much support in Springfield, and was never able to accomplish that goal.

Given the discretion afforded to the Clerk, would you comply with journalists' and researchers' FOIA request for information on how the Court Clerk's office collects fines and fees, how much is collected and how fines and fees are distributed by the clerk?

The Clerk’s office is subject to FOIA and does not have discretion under FOIA to respond to FOIA requests. The Clerk’s office is only keeper of the judicial records. Despite this, my administration has consistently always attempts to work with the Office of the Chief Judge to honor as much media request information as allowed by the Judiciary and law.

Given the discretion afforded to the Clerk, would you comply with journalists' and researchers' FOIA request for information on the kinds of programs that people on probation must complete or how many people successfully complete those programs?

See response to question 11

Given the discretion afforded to the Clerk, would you comply with journalists' and researchers' FOIA requests for information on the disciplinary records of the 4,000 non-judicial employees who work in the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County office?

No, Our office does not have 4,000 employees. We only have 1,400. Our office has union agreements, along with due process and privacy obligations, that require us to answer no to this question. But I will also add that our office has an independent Inspector General that investigates all complaints regarding misconduct or malfeasance.

The Cook County Circuit Court lags behind in use of technology in the courtrooms. How will the Clerk encourage greater use of technology in the courtrooms?

The Cook County Department of Capital and Planning (Under the Offices of the President) is currently embarking on a major Courtroom AV Capital Improvement project. Court partners such as the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, and the Office of the Chief Judge are working with me as the County leads this capital initiative.

What has been or should be done to make the system more transparent and accessible especially for people without lawyers and how would that be a change from Dorothy Brown's tenure?

Our office has worked hard to make sure the court system is accessible and transparent to everyone. Under my leadership, our office opened the Domestic Violence Survivor Center (DVSC) in Markham Courthouse to support survivors. We also opened the Pro-Se Litigants Center downtown to aid self-represented litigants, something that did not exist under her predecessor. We recently established the CCC Expungement Center to address the backlog of over 5,000 expungement requests, restoring individuals to cleared status so they could fully return to society.

What is your biggest goal if you are elected Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County?

We are currently building a statistical justice tool platform for the public that will allow all to determine whether justice policies are working or not working. My biggest goal here is allow journalists and scholars to have the data and the tools to produce independent, nonpartisan, analysis of justice policies that impact the residents of Cook County. It is my mission to deliver this during my 2nd term as Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County.

I do this to build upon the goals achieved:

  • The successful exiting of Shakman Federal Court Oversight.
  • The Completed Odyssey Case Management System Transition
    • While Cook County gave me no choice other than a Cook County contract with Tyler Technologies, implementation and court staff training overcame COVID-19 related challenges and efficiencies sped past prior deadlines. Today, the new technology platform blankets all areas of law such as Criminal, Civil, Probate, Domestic Relations, Chancery, Traffic, among others.
    • Also achieved was a new website that garnered awards for its navigation and utility features despite staffing and funding challenges.
  • The CCC Customer Call Center
    • The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the need for a better way for residents of Cook County to engage Court Clerks safely and conveniently (and safely given COVID and other pathogens in public spaces) from the comfort of their own homes when needing important information. The new CCC Call Center helped to prevent congested public areas at court locations by eliminating the need for County residents having to physically appear just to get information on their cases. One phone number – all areas of law – in over 200 languages with veteran court clerks assisting the caller – thousands of calls now handled weekly on a proven customer service platform.
  • COVID-19 Attestation Management System (CAMS)
    • The Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County (CCC) developed a unique COVID-19 Attestation Management System, or CAMS, that won national recognition and a National Association of Counties (NACo) award. It saved lives and prevented further COVID-19 infection incidents in the second largest court system in the country. Prior to this, the Cook County Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court was congested, was not aligned with state and local COVID-19 public health protocols, and led in the number of COVID-19 cases within the Cook County workforce. I assembled a team of subject matter experts with the required skillsets and framework to produce a platform and system that gained national recognition and set a standard.
  • The Domestic Violence Survivor Center
    • I vowed not just to provide greater general access to the court system, but better access to justice. Resulting in: An unprecedented collaboration space where survivors of domestic violence can safely and confidently sit with advocates and trained Court Clerks to receive the support and guidance they need on their cases. Because the southern portion (Southlands) of Cook County is underserved generally and particularly with respect to Latinos in places such as Chicago Heights, Blue Island, and Calumet City, in proportion to resources, we located the DVSC within the Markham Courthouse itself.
      • There is a safe space for children.
      • There are technology resources for survivors.
      • It’s a one-stop-support resource.

How important is the party's slating to your candidacy?

The Cook County Party slated a wealthy Citgo oil heiress to replace the only Latina incumbent at the top of Cook County government. I am a life-long Democrat but an Independent Democrat. The December 31, 2023 Chicago Sun-Times article titled “Big money, big problems. Deep-pocketed, self-funding candidates and dark money mar Illinois politics” sheds light on primary elections meddling, and self-funding loopholes that ensures the probability that society’s wealthiest trust-fund fortune heirs can simply buy public offices like corporate shares as a cheap means to power. This power accumulation by our wealthiest and their willing power brokers comes at the expense of the poor and working families throughout Cook County. As a single mother and a public servant, I know how important my independence is. It renders me an underdog, which I prefer because it gives the poor and working families a person from their ranks representing them with an empathetic, genuine, and independent voice. It is the hardest road, but the better road. I would not have it any other way.