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New Cook County Circuit Court clerk wants to leave her predecessor’s era behind, focus on updating the nation’s second largest court system

Saturday, January 09, 2021
Chicago Tribune
by Alice Yin

When newly elected Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez waded through the mounds of boxes in her office, she found case files dating back to the John Wayne Gacy trial four decades ago, she said.

“I said this is a fire hazard,” Martinez told the Tribune in a recent interview. “Everything should be at the warehouse. ... I think it’s just laziness. I think people just saw it there, they just walked past it. It became a routine.”

 

The clutter was just one recent flashpoint between Martinez, the first Latina elected to the post, and her predecessor Dorothy Brown, who announced in 2019 she would not run for reelection following two decades at the helm — a span that included a yearslong federal investigation. In a statement, Brown told the Tribune the boxes were in line with record-keeping practices and that Martinez should “gain an understanding of how long certain records are to be maintained and why.”

Martinez, a former Democratic state senator who now heads the administration side of the nation’s second largest unified court system, said she wants her Nov. 3 victory to signify the start of a new era that will leave behind Brown’s “very poorly” run tenure. But weeks into her new job, Martinez said Brown has impeded transition efforts and made remarks singling out her staffers’ racial identities.

The disorder in the clerk’s office, which was criticized over the years for perceived mismanagement and wildly outdated technology, was first reported in a WGN story that included Brown’s statement alleging Martinez’s team showed “disrespect to the American English language and the English-speaking staff, by only communicating in Spanish” and that her office’s racial makeup “looks like Puerto Rico” instead of Cook County.

New Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez in her Daley Center office on Jan. 6, 2021.
New Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez in her Daley Center office on Jan. 6, 2021. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

“First of all, that’s a racist comment,” Martinez said, adding that her staffers come from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. “This thing that it’s ‘little Puerto Rico’ and that I should not speak my language, that is pretty racist to me. But I’m not going to address it. That’s her issue. Like I said, she’s irrelevant at this point.”

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In response, Brown told the Tribune, “I have no intentions of going back and forth with Ms. Martinez, my tenure is over,” and stood by her statement that blamed the “bumpy transition” on Martinez. Brown said that Martinez “needs to stop whining and start managing,” and blamed the new clerk’s team for disarray during the transition.

Despite the tiff, Martinez said she’s moving forward with plans of an overhaul that will prioritize transparency and efficiency in an office with about a $120 million annual budget and 1,400 employees. Next, Martinez said, she wants to focus on a sweeping, “forensic” audit in the coming weeks once COVID-19 safety protocols, such as Plexiglass and socially distanced workstations, are hammered out. To improve accessibility, Martinez said she wants to “retrain” her workforce in technology when needed.

“I want to make sure that everything that was under the last regime is exposed so I can start dealing with whatever it is that’s wrong. Or, whatever is right, how do we make it better?” Martinez said. “This office has been run very poorly, and I think that you will see a transformation of this office.”

Brown’s administration was met with criticism over the years for being notoriously slow to adapt to new technology, particularly with maintaining and distributing court case files. A lengthy federal investigation during Brown’s administration ended with two former employees being convicted of perjury. Brown has not been charged with wrongdoing.

Martinez said her office will consult with the state legislature to explore the idea of opening parts of her operations to the Freedom of Information Act. And she wants to hire more administrative clerks and translators, two roles which she said have been short-staffed in the past.

If the road ahead appears uphill, Martinez said she isn’t fazed. She cites the challenges she overcame as a single mom, her humble origins in City Hall’s mailroom more than four decades ago, and her surprise triumph in the March Democratic primary against three opponents, one of whom had the backing of the Democratic Party. She defeated Republican Barbara Bellar in the general election.

Martinez had benefited from long-standing recognition as a state senator from the Northwest Side, also winning this year’s race to be the 33rd Ward Democratic committeeperson. But she described herself as “independent” from the Democratic Party and pointed out her unhesitating scorn at Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan a year before he faced calls to resign his post amid a corruption probe.

“The Democratic Party knows I don’t go with the flow, especially when I don’t think something’s right,” Martinez said. “I don’t hold back.”

Alice Yin

Chicago Tribune
CONTACT

Alice Yin works the overnight shift at the Tribune, responsible for covering whatever breaks. She is a Medill School of Journalism graduate and was a statehouse reporter for the Associated Press in Michigan before being hired last summer by the Sun-Times. Alice likes to explore new restaurants, go jogging and frequent bookshops.


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