Grace G. Dickler
Grace G. Dickler

Update: The number of judges in the Domestic Relations Division at the Daley Center was clarified in the fifth paragraph.

Starting Monday at the Daley Center, the Cook County Circuit Court’s Domestic Relations Division will consolidate its dissolution-of-marriage and parentage calls so judges will hear both types of cases instead of one or the other.

The change effectively discontinues the Parentage and Child Support Court, as an expedited child-support call solely for unmarried women to obtain support from their children’s fathers.

Circuit Judge Grace G. Dickler, the Domestic Relations Division’s presiding judge, said the consolidation comes as part of an effort to treat children of unmarried parents the same as children of married parents — especially as the issues surrounding parentage cases have become more complex over time.

It will also provide a broader exposure for the division’s judges to every aspect of domestic relations and help balance the case load across judge’s calendars, she said.

As the division is currently organized with 35 judges in Daley Center, seven judges hear parentage cases while the rest hear divorce cases. But starting Monday, each judge in the Domestic Relations Division will hear parentage and divorce matters, and any newly filed lawsuit will be randomly assigned to one of 15 judges with individual calendars or to one of three judicial teams — each with one preliminary judge and five trial judges.

Eight current Domestic Relations individual calendars will be joined by six former Parentage Court calendars and one former post-decree calendar to comprise the set of 15 individual judges.

For cases placed within one of the three teams, cases will be heard by the assigned team’s preliminary judge until that judge determines the case is ready for resolution by prove-up or trial.

The new process also eliminates a standalone post-decree calendar, instead providing that each judge will hear post-decree matters on a single designated day each week.

The division will maintain from the existing structure three judges on expedited-hearing calendars. The expedited judges will hear both parentage and divorce cases.

But the change — which affects only the division’s Daley Center judges — is something Dickler equated to “turning around an ocean liner.”

With such a drastic overhaul, she expects some of the initial plan will be fine-tuned over time.

“There’s going to be ripples and there’s going to be waves I’m sure we could not have possibly anticipated, but because of everyone’s support, I think we’re going to be fine,” she said.

Before 1993, parentage cases were heard by judges in the 1st Municipal District at Chicago police stations until the hearings were moved to courtrooms at 32 W. Randolph St., and eventually to the Daley Center.

In the past, Dickler said, non-marital children made up a smaller portion of the population. Now, she said, they make up about 40 percent of the population in some communities and as high as 75 or 80 percent in others.

Fathers also used to be largely uninterested in participating in child care, she said. But over time societal norms have shifted toward both parents wanting a say in issues such as custody, parenting time, education and health care.

“All of the issues that usually come up when parents are married all the sudden [evolved and] started coming up for unmarried parents,” she said.

“There’s nothing more complicated than an issue of where a child’s going to live, who’s going to handle the decision-making over this child, who’s going to determine … the health care for this child. The issues can become very complicated, which is why I think— among other things — that this is really the right thing to do.”

Parentage cases were relocated to the Daley Center after Circuit Judge Timothy C. Evans became the court’s chief judge.

Since Dickler was named presiding judge of the division in July 2011, the number of judges who hear parentage cases grew from four to seven.

After her arrival, Dickler formed a committee of lawyers and state’s attorneys as well as staff from the circuit clerk’s office, the sheriff’s office, the public guardian and the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice to study potential changes for the division.

“I came in thinking something might need to change,” she said. “In fact … this was something that was very much on Judge Evans’ radar screen. He has a lot of concern that we are servicing all of our constituents in an appropriate manner.”

Paul Feinstein, the owner of Paul L. Feinstein Ltd. who was a part of Dickler’s committee, said it was hard for him to picture how the consolidation would take shape before official plans were unveiled at a seminar Dickler organized in December.

He said he was impressed with the detail in the plan, but he recognized the process will be quite fluid as everyone involved gets used to the new system.

“It’s a big upheaval in terms of the calendars, the judges and everybody having different duties,” he said. “Like it or not, the system is here, so we have to start living under it.”

But potentially the hardest part about working with the change is explaining to clients why their cases might take an extra few months to resolve, said Jennifer S. Tier, a partner at Frumm & Frumm.

With the removal of the post-decree calendar, Tier said about half of her firm’s post-decree cases were reassigned and given a status date before a new judge.

“I think that’s the hardest thing about it is having to explain to clients things that are out of your control that will delay their case,” she said. “All in all, though, I understand why they did it. I think it’s reasonable. I just think with the volume of cases, as always, it’s hard to do a complete reorganization. But that’s a problem in Cook County.”

Beermann Pritikin Mirabelli Swerdlove LLP partner Enrico J. Mirabelli has practiced family law since the days when child support cases were heard in city police stations. He called the consolidation “the most comprehensive reformation” he has seen in 35 years in the field.

“I think it’s destined to bring equality and efficiency for both the lawyers and the litigants,” Mirabelli said.

He said he anticipates new and seasoned lawyers to encounter a learning curve as everyone settles into the new process, but the change is one that moves the court in a good direction.

“I’m applauding Judge Dickler for her innovative spirit, and I think overall this is a major improvement for the litigants and the lawyers,” he said.