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Editorial: Judge Tim Evans, be an enforcer
Assessing the boss of the Cook County Circuit Court, who faces an election

Wednesday, August 28, 2013
Chicago Tribune

An important election in Cook County looms next month, but you don't get to vote in it. The 268 circuit judges in the court system do. They will choose the chief judge, the person who oversees the operations of one of the largest court systems in the world.

The judges will pick their boss by secret ballot Sept. 10.

What's at stake? The future of a court system that has a profound impact on thousands of lives.

Timothy Evans, the former Chicago alderman and candidate for mayor, has served as chief judge since 2001 and he's seeking another three-year term. He easily dispatched another judge who challenged him in 2010, and he doesn't appear to face any competition this year.

We wish, though, that there were a real election, a real debate, because there are real concerns about the operation of this court system.

More than 300 Cook County Jail inmates have been waiting at least five years for their cases to conclude, according to Sheriff Tom Dart. Thousands of defendants have been in jail for six months to five years while their cases lollygag through the system. Last week, a 62-year-old man died of natural causes in his jail cell while he awaited sentencing for a 2007 murder.

It's not just the criminal courts that face delays. There are issues with the civil courts too. Ask anyone who regularly deals with the court system. It's a long, expensive haul from start to finish.

Other problems persist in Cook County's legal system: technology from the Stone Age, resistance to stricter judicial oversight, disputes over the proper use of electronic monitoring of defendants and a continuously overcrowded jail.

These have been issues for decades in the courts. We've seen from experience that when the chief judge takes an easygoing attitude toward court efficiency, cases drag. When the chief judge puts real pressure on the judges in the courtrooms — produce or you'll be transferred to nowhere land — the pace improves.

We admire Evans as a jurist and a civic leader. He does, though, fall on the easygoing side. The judges who let cases languish, who take long lunch breaks then close their courtrooms early in the afternoon, they don't fear him. They have cushy jobs.

That's not fair to the people who are harmed when the court system crawls to conclusion. It's not fair to the defendants, to the victims, to everyone who turns to the civil system to resolve disputes. It's particularly unfair to young people in the juvenile courts.

Evans acknowledges shortcomings in the system, but as he told us in a recent meeting, he believes justice is better served by allowing cases to unfold at their own pace rather than be rushed. He distributes much of the blame for delays on prosecutors and defense attorneys who often ask for continuances.

Dart is responsible for the jail population, Evans says. The Illinois Supreme Court is holding up the county's progress toward electronic case filing, he says. Cook County will get cameras in the courtrooms ... when the Supreme Court finally gives its blessing, he says.

Evans says he has developed a more transparent system to track which judges manage their caseloads efficiently. But he also trusts his judges, who he notes are independently elected, to run their own dockets.

On Wednesday, he released to us records that show significant differences in the case clearance rates of his judges. That data release is to his credit — now let's see how he handles those judges who clearly are identified as laggards.

The chief judge has made some creative reforms and has generally sound priorities. But what's sorely missing is a sense of urgency. He needs to be the enforcer on his judges; his judges need to be the enforcers in their courtrooms. For starters, those judges all need to put in a full day's work.

That's why we wish there were a vigorous, public election for this office. We'd like to see Evans pushed to defend the pace and progress of the courts. These persistent problems deserve more concerted attention.

Other counties long ago implemented electronic case filing and video conferencing of bond hearings, to improve cost and efficiency. Here, we're still paper and in-person. Even for brief court appearances, inmates have to be transferred between their cells and courthouses, at significant expense. Evans says defendants have a right to confront their accusers; other court leaders say video conferencing has worked extremely well, without infringing on defendants' rights.

Some judges work slowly, some simply don't have the legal ability to do the job. They tend to be protected, though. Other counties put data on the Internet that show how well judges handle their caseloads. We encourage Evans to post online the caseload records he delivered to us. Let the public know what's going on.

Evans has been a solid administrator of the day-to-day management of the massive court system. He is likable, open-minded and fair. But he has been hands-off when it comes to his judges. They enjoy that. No wonder they'll re-elect him.

We urge Judge Evans to act as though he faces the political fight of his life. Be impatient. Make real, tangible change. Enough talking, meeting and studying. Force change

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