Remote video calls with a judge, marked seating in courtrooms, and trials with jurors seated 6 feet apart. That’s the future for McHenry County court, which received the green light to resume business as (somewhat) usual starting June 1.
Following an Illinois Supreme Court order issued Wednesday, the McHenry County courthouse will expand its services in June, including the launch of a pilot program that would allow for virtual court appearances on certain matters.
The Michael J. Sullivan Judicial Center has provided only “essential” services during the governor’s stay-at-home order in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. While attorneys have been able to handle some matters – mostly civil – via video calls, judges will begin to reassemble more complete dockets starting next month. The courthouse also will launch a pilot program aimed at tackling entirely remote court calls for small claims, traffic and divorce cases.
Video court appearances that would ordinarily take place in a public courtroom will be livestreamed on YouTube, Chief Judge of the 22nd Judicial Circuit James Cowlin said. Anyone who enters the courthouse still is required to wear a mask or face covering and must practice social distancing.
“We are opening all the courtrooms [and] opening the building to nonessential matters,” Cowlin said. “You might call that ‘regular court,’ but of course nothing’s regular anymore.”
Cowlin has rearranged the chairs and benches available throughout the courthouse to ensure people remain at least 6 feet apart. Courtroom seating also has been marked off to keep visitors at a distance.
“We walked around and figured out you can’t have four chairs at a particular table anymore,” Cowlin said.
On any typical day at the courthouse before the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of people would enter the Woodstock building for 9 a.m. appearances. Starting in June, however, hearings will be more staggered in an attempt to limit the number of people in one courtroom at a time, Cowlin said. The chief judge also is exploring options for jury trials, which, for now, will require all jurors to remain at least 6 feet apart.
“The other thing that we’ve done is we decided, after seeing that some of these remote hearings were working, that we would attempt to see if we could actually have certain court calls operate virtually,” Cowlin said.
With the help of McHenry County Judges Justin Hansen and Jennifer Johnson, a remote appearance pilot program will launch next week. Three courtrooms that handle traffic, small claims and divorce matters will use video conference software such as Zoom to facilitate remote appearances.
“I think, I’m not positive, but we may be one of the first to actually attempt to do a regular traffic call over Zoom,” McHenry County Circuit Clerk Kathy Keefe said. “And I think that’s what a lot of the counties are looking at to see how that’s going to go because the traffic call, that small claims call are the two that have the most bodies.”
The parties and attorneys on those cases have been sent notices that they have the option to attend virtually and were sent a Zoom link to appear. Anyone who either doesn’t have the technology or chooses not to make a remote appearances, will be mailed a rescheduling notice with a new in-person court date.
Keefe’s staff has issued about 48,000 notices to people involved in about 24,000 court events that have been rescheduled since March alone, she said.
With so many people who require access to the building, the county’s pilot program might be especially beneficial for those who otherwise might need to take off work, find a sitter or bring more medically vulnerable people with them to the courthouse.
“Especially when we don’t want people to bring their family and friends to the building,” Cowlin said. “We need those folks to stay home during this time period. So yes, we’re very excited to see how this is going to go.”