February 5, 2020
In the November 2020 general election, Cook County voters will elect a new Circuit Court Clerk for the first time since 2000, with current Clerk Dorothy Brown opting not to run for reelection. Four Democratic candidates and one Republican candidate have filed to run for the office.
The Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court in Cook County is a fairly obscure and arguably opaque County office, especially to those unfamiliar with the court system. The office has been criticized for inefficiency, patronage and delays in digitizing court records. The race presents a unique opportunity to hear from candidates about how they would improve efficiency and transparency within the Office.
Candidates running for the Office laid out many of their reform ideas at a candidate forum hosted by the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, Chicago Council of Lawyers and American Constitution Society-Chicago. The candidates’ proposals include ethical reforms, improving training for front-line staff, digitizing all court operations and improving public access to records and court data.
However, current practices, contracts and resources at the Office will impact the next Clerk’s ability to implement reforms. What, then, is the current status of the office the next Circuit Court Clerk will inherit?
Role of the Circuit Court Clerk
The Circuit Court of Cook County is the largest of the 24 judicial circuits in Illinois and the second largest unified court system in the world. The Office of the Chief Judge oversees all administrative functions of the courts. The Court has approximately 400 judges, and approximately one million new cases are filed per year.
The Clerk of the Circuit Court is responsible for maintaining all court files and recording court proceedings and determinations for the Circuit Court. The Clerk also collects fines and fees for the Circuit Court.
The Clerk of the Circuit Court is an elected position, although the office handles administrative functions rather than policy-making functions. The clerical nature of the Circuit Court Clerk’s responsibilities has raised questions as to why the position should be elected at all. The Illinois Supreme Court and Appellate Courts appoint their clerks, whereas the Circuit Courts elect a clerk in each county.
The Clerk of the Circuit Court manages a budget of approximately $124 million ($121.6 million excluding grant funding) and oversees a staff of approximately 1,480. (By comparison, Cook County’s complete budget totals $6.2 billion in FY2020, nearly half of which is made up of the County’s health system.)
The majority of expenditures are accounted for within the Public Safety Fund, which is part of the County’s general operating fund. A smaller portion of spending is accounted for through four special purpose funds that were created to defray costs of specific functions such as maintaining automated record keeping systems and document storage.
The table below shows the expenditures within the Office of the Circuit Court Clerk over the past ten years. In the FY2020 budget, the Public Safety Fund accounts for $100.7 million of the Circuit Court Clerk’s operations, while the special purpose funds account for a total of $21.0 million.
Overall spending in the office has increased by 15.1% over the past ten years, although that is due in large part to the County shifting fixed costs for expenses such as insurance, employee healthcare benefits and utility costs into departmental budgets. For this reason, the Clerk’s expenditures within the Public Safety Fund increased substantially between FY2016 and FY2017.
Within the Public Safety Fund, the Circuit Court Clerk’s Office brings in approximately $70 million in revenue annually from fines and fees. The FY2020 revenue estimate is $75.3 million.
The special purpose funds generate around the same amount of revenue as expenses, according to Cook County’s audited financial statements.
Understanding the flow of fines and fees into and out of the office is difficult because very little detail is provided in the County’s budgets or financial audits. The Illinois Supreme Court implemented a new statewide fee structure effective July 1, 2019, in the Criminal and Traffic Assessment Act, which is intended to standardize fees across the State for civil, criminal and traffic court cases. While steps such as this have been taken to improve fairness, more publicly available information is needed to assess how fines and fees are collected and utilized by the County.
In addition to the Clerk’s operating budget, expenses incurred for capital costs such as technology equipment and facilities are accounted for in the Cook County capital budget. For example, the Circuit Court’s new case management system and a new records storage facility built in 2014, costing $36.4 million and $24 million respectively, are accounted for in annual capital budgets, along with many other building improvements.
The number of full-time equivalent personnel budgeted for the Clerk’s office has decreased by 27.4% over the past ten years from over 2,000 in FY2011 to 1,465.6 in FY2020.
The Circuit Court Clerk requested an increase of 160.4 full-time equivalent positions in the Public Safety Fund for FY2020 from the number of positions approved the prior year, or 1,270.8 FTEs in FY2019. At a FY2020 departmental budget hearing in October 2019, the Circuit Court Clerk said the requested increase was to handle the expected increase in expungements associated with cannabis legalization in Illinois. The Cook County State’s Attorney is expected to expunge 150,000 records in 2020. The Clerk’s budget request also indicated the need for additional clerk positions to properly attend court sessions and handle court operations.
The County budget ultimately approved by the Board of Commissioners for FY2020 included 1,320.2 FTEs for the Clerk’s Office in the Public Safety Fund, an increase of 49.4 positions over FY2019 rather than the requested 160.4. The number of positions funded by the special purpose funds decreased by 4.4 FTEs in the FY2020 budget from the prior year.
An important question is how efficiently a court system uses its resources. Cook County in recent years has produced a report called the Performance Based Management and Budget Annual Report, the latest of which is for FY2018. The report includes performance measures and cost efficiency metrics for each County agency and department. The Circuit Court Clerk’s Office provides metrics for various programs—for example, Courtroom Clerks, Calls and Services; Data Entry; Court Filings; and Document Scanning. The next Clerk of the Circuit Court should assess the current metrics and consider updates to make performance measures more useful for assessing efficiency.
For many of the performance measurement metrics, it is unclear how they are calculated or what they mean. The Civic Federation recommended in an analysis of the Cook County FY2020 budget that the County create definitions for every metric that explain what is being measured (a total or an average), the time frame (monthly, annually), how costs are calculated and how success is measured.
The Office of the Chief Judge also tracks important Circuit Court operations and efficiency data, but has only participated in the County’s performance based management system up to a certain point. The measures provided by the Chief Judge’s Office exclude the judiciary. The Chief Judge uses CourTools to measure court performance. CourTools is a set of ten performance measures developed by the National Center for State Courts. The CourTools measures would be useful to the public in assessing the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the Circuit Court because they include measures such as how long it takes to reach a case disposition, reliability and integrity of case files and cost per case. However, the Chief Judge’s Office does not make these performance measures publicly available.
Number of Case Filings
One measure used in tracking court activity is the number of new cases filed per year. The Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts (AOIC) collects caseload information by county and publishes the data in annual reports.
In the ten-year period from 2009 through 2018 (the most recent data available), the total number of new case filings in Cook County dropped by 43.4%. The number of criminal case filings fell by half during that period. Quasi-criminal cases, consisting primarily of traffic cases (not including DUIs, which are classified as criminal cases), decreased significantly from nearly one million to about 580,000. Juvenile case filings decreased significantly by 77.9%.
According to Cook County Criminal Courtroom Utilization Study by the National Center for State Courts, the decline in the number of criminal case filings in Cook County, including felonies and misdemeanors, follows a national trend. Nationally, criminal caseloads have fallen by 2% annually over the past ten years. However, a geographic shift has also been occurring in the composition of criminal cases in Cook County. The number of criminal cases originating in the City of Chicago has declined while the number of cases originating in the west and south suburbs has increased.
The declining trend in the number of court cases in Cook County prompts the question of why the Circuit Court Clerk has requested additional staff. Right-sizing and allocating staff appropriately based on the volume of court activity will be an issue for consideration by the next Clerk.
In recent years the Circuit Court Clerk has been working to implement two major technology initiatives: electronic filing for civil cases and a new case management system. These processes have experienced delays associated with the vendor, Tyler Technologies, and bumpy rollouts.
Electronic filing, or e-filing, is the process by which court case documents are submitted electronically online instead of in person at the courthouse on paper. The Illinois Supreme Court ordered mandatory electronic filing for civil cases in all Illinois courts per Illinois Supreme Court Order M.R. 18368. The Supreme Court contracted exclusively with Tyler Technologies for the statewide rollout. E-filing for civil cases in the Supreme Court and Appellate Courts went into effect July 1, 2017. Electronic filing of civil cases in the Cook County Circuit Court took effect on July 1, 2018 following a six-month extension granted to Cook County by the Supreme Court. The Clerk’s office anticipates 2.5 million civil case documents to be e-filed in 2020. The Supreme Court Order permits e-filing for criminal cases after a case has been initiated and assigned a case number using current practices.
At a departmental budget hearing in October 2019 on the FY2020 budget, the Circuit Court Clerk said while technology should lead to streamlining staff, the e-filing system has had the opposite effect—resulting in a greater need for customer service staff to deal with the complexities of the system.
Case Management System
The Circuit Court Clerk’s office entered into a $36.4 million contract with Tyler Technologies for a new case management system to replace the old mainframe legacy system. The case management system stores all case data and court docket information. The contract period starting in April 2017 runs through April 2021. After missing an unofficial deadline of March 2019, the new case management system went live for criminal cases in November 2019. Civil cases were set to go live in January 2020 and traffic cases are expected to go live in March 2020. The rollout of the new case management system for criminal cases in November drew criticism from attorneys and judges for incomplete case information and delays in obtaining documentation.
Management of paper records has been a point of criticism of the Circuit Court for many years. Lost and misplaced files hold up appeals cases due to incomplete records. In 2014, the County built a new $24 million warehouse facility in Cicero to consolidate storage of all Circuit Court records, which previously had been held at multiple locations. The consolidation of records storage at the new facility was meant to improve efficiency and better facilitate digitization of paper records. However, records delays are reported to be an ongoing problem.
Public Access to Data
In Illinois, the judiciary is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), as are other government agencies. This effectively exempts the Circuit Court of Cook County from FOIA requests and gives the court discretion over what information and data it will release, despite the fact that court records are open to the public for inspection.
The process to obtain Circuit Court data in Cook County is to submit requests in writing to the Chief Judge. If the request is approved, the Chief Judge directs the Clerk of the Circuit to process the data request.
Many groups have experienced difficulty obtaining Cook County court records with long delays and large fees, as described in this Civic Federation report. The lack of publicly accessible data has led groups to resort to data scraping and conducting in-person court watching.
Without sufficient data, system stakeholders and the public cannot make assessments about how effectively, efficiently and fairly court programs are working.
The Civic Federation will watch with interest to see how the next Clerk of the Circuit Court addresses the issues described above and approaches improving the efficiency and accountability of the office. The Civic Federation and the Union League Club of Chicago will co-host a candidate panel event on Friday, February 21 to hear from the Circuit Court Clerk candidates about their plans for policy reform in that office. Click here for details and registration for the event.
 Illinois Constitution of 1970, Article VI, Section 18(b); and Clerks of Courts Act, 705 ILCS 105/1.
 Full-time equivalent positions, 14 of which are grant funded positions. Headcount may differ from FTE count.
 While the Illinois Freedom of Information Act does not explicitly exempt the judiciary from FOIA, Illinois case law has established the judicial branch and any functions that are part of the judicial branch are not required to comply with FOIA disclosure. See Copley Press, Inc. v. Administration Office of the Illinois Courts (Illinois Appellate Court, 1995).