April 28, 2021
In September 2020, the Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts, Chicago Council of Lawyers and the Civic Federation released New Directions for the Office of the Clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court: Recommendations for Planning and Transitioning to New Leadership ahead of the November 2020 general election. The New Directions report provided a comprehensive set of recommendations for the Circuit Court Clerk across a variety of areas including management, technology, transparency, ethics and public access. The report included an ambitious timeline of recommendations to be completed within the new officeholder’s first 30 days, first six months, and first year in office. Illinois State Senator Iris Martinez was elected and took office as Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County on December 1, 2020.
This report serves as the first of three planned updates on reform initiatives undertaken by the new Clerk, Iris Martinez, within her first 100 days in office (December 1, 2020 through March 10, 2021) and progress made on implementing the recommendations identified in the New Directions report. Our coalition intended to complete the first transition report based on the Clerk’s first 30 days in office. However, in January 2021 the Clerk’s Office said it would need additional time to address immediate operational and management issues inherited from the previous clerk, as well as the impact of COVID-19, before being able to provide information and answer our questions about the Clerk’s initial priorities. Therefore, a 100-day report has been produced in place of the planned 30-day report. After submitting a list of written questions in January 2021 and several follow-up requests for responses to those questions, we received responses on March 31, 2021.
The Clerk did not respond to several requests for a meeting or an invitation to participate in a virtual community forum in connection with this progress report. Because we have not been able to receive firsthand updates from the Clerk, the findings provided in this update are based on information obtained through communications with the Clerk’s executive staff, as well as publicly available documents and media reports. The findings are further substantiated through anecdotal information provided by court practitioners, advocates and litigants.
New Directions called for a major shift in the Cook County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office, from a culture that serves political and judicial interests to one that efficiently and fairly serves court users (litigants and attorneys) and the general public. We have not yet seen the new administration take adequate steps that would move toward that goal.
We recognize that the Clerk inherited an office with many structural and operational challenges that will require a substantial amount of evaluation and restructuring to fix. Our impression is that, despite ample opportunity between the March 2020 primaries and her swearing-in on December 1, 2020, Clerk Martinez failed to form an effective transition committee or develop a comprehensive transition plan. We are unaware of any organized effort by the Clerk or her staff to establish updated goals and priorities for the office. As discussed below, it appears that the Clerk’s Office has failed to adopt many of the recommendations included in our New Directions report as priorities. If any such efforts have taken place, the Clerk’s Office has not communicated its new priorities or initiatives to stakeholders or the public. More importantly, it has not initiated an office-wide audit or comprehensive mission planning effort that would guide such an effort and allow public input into the process.
Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts, the Civic Federation, and the Chicago Council of Lawyers recommended in our New Directions report that the following initiatives commence within the new Clerk’s first 30 days in office:
The New Directions report provided 24 recommendations, with suggested timelines for completion within the new Clerk administration’s first 30 days, first six months and first year in office. In addition to the 30-day recommendations above, this 100-day report provides an update on many of the other longer-term recommendations. The recommendations are numbered to align with the corresponding recommendation in the original New Directions report.
 New Directions for the Office of the Clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court from Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts, the Civic Federation, and the Chicago Council of Lawyers is available at at http://www.chicagoappleseed.org/2020-clerk-transition-report or https://www.civicfed.org/CircuitCourtClerk2020
The Elizabeth Morse Charitable Trust’s generous support for the Civic Federation’s criminal justice program helped make this report possible.