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Judge halts court layoffs temporarily

Wednesday, December 06, 2017
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
by Jordyn Reiland


Chicago Daily Law Bulletin - Serving the city's law profession since 1854

Lake County judge issued a temporary restraining order, halting the looming county budget cuts and layoffs in the Cook County Circuit Court.

Tuesday afternoon’s decision saved, at least temporarily, the 161 circuit court employees who had expected to lose their salaries and benefits on Friday.

Lake County Circuit Judge Mitchell L. Hoffman, who was appointed by a Cook County judge last week, granted the restraining order after nearly five hours of argument and negotiations at the Daley Center between attorneys for Cook County’s top judge and the county board president.

Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court last week, petitioning the court to enforce an administrative order he put in place that would stop the layoffs and “provide sufficient funds” for the offices of the chief judge, circuit clerk and sheriff.

The county’s $5.2 billion budget was unanimously approved by the Cook County Board of Commissioners late last month.

Hoffman’s written order found that Evans’ attorneys proved the chief judge had a clearly ascertainable right in need of protection, showed there is a fair question that he will succeed on the merits of his claim, would suffer irreparable harm if an order were not issued and had no other adequate legal remedy.

Evans is represented in the suit by the Illinois Attorney General’s Office.

At a hearing on the restraining order Tuesday, Assistant Attorney General Sunil S. Bhave said the county board’s cuts to the chief judge’s office were “unprecedented” given the fact that the court accounts for only 5.6 percent of the county’s overall budget.

“There’s no dispute that the county is facing financial problems, but this budget goes too far in cuts to the Office of the Chief Judge,” Bhave said.

He said the county has a duty to appropriate funds, but it cannot intrude into how to best operate the circuit court because the court is not under its jurisdiction.

Private counsel was brought in as special Cook County state’s attorneys to represent the county, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas.

Representing the county, Thomas G. DiCianni of Ancel Glink Diamond Bush DiCanni & Krafthefer P.C. argued the chief judge’s office would not suffer irreparable harm without the restraining order.

He said the judge has an option to approach the board and request a transfer of funds to halt layoffs.

“Maybe this motion is premature,” he said. “I know they are concerned about layoffs, but they have remedies,” DiCianni said.

Citing Jorgensen v. Blagojevich, in which the Illinois Supreme Court struck down judicial salary reductions, and Burnette v. Stroger, in which the 1st District Appellate Court ruled the county board could not order layoffs and furloughs of specific assistant public defenders, Hoffman wrote it is clearly apparent that the chief judge, not the county has sole authority to make decisions over the termination of court employees.

Hoffman also wrote it was important to note the chief judge alleged serious public safety issues, legitimate concerns over the constitutional rights of minors and the potential for significant interference with existing collective bargaining agreements and various court services that would result from termination of circuit court employees.

After the ruling, DiCianni said it was still early in the process but said he respected Hoffman’s decision.

Frank Shuftan, chief spokesperson for Preckwinkle said Hoffman has encouraged both parties to communicate in order to resolve the situation and while they have done so, the chief judge continues to ask for at least $290 million instead of the $225 million contained in the board’s approved budget.

“The [c]ounty approved an appropriation that it determined adequately supported the Office of the Chief Judge, and the [c]ounty does not have the resources to appropriate additional funds,” Shuftan said in a statement.

“Nonetheless, the [c]hief [j]udge, as do all offices, has the ability to seek fund transfers from the [b]oard during the year to address any operational priorities as long as the office stays within its overall allocated amounts.”

Illinois attorney general spokeswoman Annie Thompson said “the purpose of the lawsuit was to make sure the court system is funded adequately. In particular, it is critical that the public safety operations of the court system receive adequate funding. This order will accomplish that.”

James P. Fieweger, of Michael Best & Friedrich LLP, represents the county treasurer.

Evans is also represented by Assistant Attorneys General Hellin Jang and Amy M. McCarthy.

The case is Timothy C. Evans v. County of Cook, et al., 17 CH 15851.

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