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Editorial: The Supreme Court serves notice
Chief justice summons Cook County officials for an intervention

Wednesday, October 02, 2013
Chicago Tribune

The elected officials who preside over the creaky Cook County Circuit Court system just got summoned to the principal's office.

Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride, in a Sept. 26 letter, has called for Chief Judge Timothy Evans, County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, Sheriff Tom Dart, Public Defender Abishi Cunningham and court administrator Michael Tardy to meet with the members of the state Supreme Court. The purpose: frank talk about the operations of the criminal courts.

Kilbride has also invited Eric Washington, chief judge of the Washington, D.C., Court of Appeals, who is well-versed in court management issues. Make no mistake, this is an extraordinary turn of events. The Illinois Supreme Court generally is quite reluctant to step into the operations of local courts.

It didn't have much choice in this case, not after Preckwinkle pleaded for help in a Sept. 12 letter to Justice Lloyd Karmeier. She requested that a judge from outside Cook County be assigned to help process delayed criminal cases. She also asked the court to convene a commission to audit the system and to develop long-term solutions to the problem.

"During my tenure, I have been disheartened to discover that our county's administration of justice is not in accordance with the standards the residents of the state of Illinois both deserve and are entitled to under the law," she wrote.

The county's chronically slow resolution of criminal cases is unfair to crime victims, to defendants and to taxpayers — housing an inmate costs $143 per day, according to Preckwinkle's office.

The sheriff's office reports that more than 300 inmates have waited three years or more for their cases to conclude, 55 of them for five years or more. On the civil side, many people who rely on the courts to settle their cases — divorces, child custody, foster care — face a long, expensive haul from start to finish.

We're relieved to see the Supreme Court get involved. Judge Evans has been reluctant to acknowledge serious problems in the administration of his courts. He and the other stakeholders invited to Kilbride's meeting have strained relationships. There's little trust among them. They need — we need — an intervention.

It's also time for an independent audit of the court's operations. "Every business across the country does audits," says Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke. "We definitely need to look at our system through a diagnostic audit. It has to be transparent. We need to know where we stand. How long does it take a person in our system to go to trial?"

This isn't uncharted territory. Other counties and other states have improved efficiency by implementing electronic case filing, video conferencing of bond hearings and cameras in the courtrooms, which let the public see how the courts are working. The leaders of other court systems have forced lollygagging judges to step up and put in a full day's work.

In New York City, court officials frustrated with the slow pace of justice in Bronx courtrooms put an outside judge in charge. In less than a year, Justice Patricia DiMango transformed the Bronx courts into a fair and efficient system, resolving hundreds of cases that had lingered for two years or more.

It could happen here. It's overdue.

The Illinois Supreme Court has taken a positive step, but one trip to the principal's office won't get it done. The justices have to be in this for the long haul.



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