The COVID-19 pandemic arrived as a cataclysmic shock to the court system, demanding quick decisions to adapt to fast-changing circumstances. What came as a surprise was how positive and potentially lasting some of those changes could become.

It’s by no means clear what lies ahead. But many leaders see the opportunity to draw on the lessons of the past two years and release some of the conventions of the past. Ideally, they’ll continue to welcome fresh perspectives and bring newfound energy to the idea of building a better system, one that prioritizes access, efficiency, communication and collaboration.

Some of the most evident benefits came from remote proceedings, which removed hurdles that hassled the public. For many, transit, parking and other logistics and expenses are a very real burden. User-friendly features born of the pandemic, including the ability to pay for tickets online or over the phone, quickly became favored.

Other positive impacts came from establishing new ways to connect, even when not physically together.

Hosting remote marriages and Zoom adoption ceremonies allowed celebration from afar, connecting family and friends who might have otherwise missed out on these milestone events. Victims and survivors were shown a new level of empathy as they relived some of their most difficult or traumatic experiences from the comfort and safety of their own homes.

Still more improvements came from the revelation of forced, but ultimately flowing, collaboration across the statewide system of courts.

When the COVID-19 crisis hit, said Illinois Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis, the high court knew the problems it bred would be beyond the scope of just seven justices. The new world of the court system was not only about judges, either — it was also about litigants and lawyers and how they could work toward solutions together.

The justices began working with leaders across the state, from chief judges of the trial courts to clerks’ offices. Although leaders may have been squared away in little boxes on a small screen, scattered miles apart, they felt more connected than ever.

“People from all across the state could now, because of this new technology, talk about the crisis, the problems they were having and ask each other for solutions,” Theis said.

“What happened in that moment was that we could collaborate and work together to come to solutions. That dynamic was amazing. It has never been there before. There are all these 102 counties and 24 circuits ... we’ve never had that kind of free-flowing, consistent communication.”

Courts often better known for traditionalism than agility felt their perspective shift.

“We realized we can change if we need to,” Theis said. “It’s just amazing that we didn’t need to have the big courtrooms and big pillars in front of the courthouses or stairs leading up to the grand doors. We could actually do this essential work in a new way.”

Other, unrelated shifts in the courts are occurring in tandem with pandemic adjustments. The state is preparing to implement a statewide pretrial service system, adjust to new appellate court districts and consider changes to the Code of Judicial Conduct.

In day-to-day operations, hybrid courtroom operations could be the future of Illinois’ judicial system, several judges say. In counties from Cook to Winnebago, a newfound reliance on technology revealed unprecedented ways of operating. The Supreme Court’s Illinois Judicial Conference recently created a Remote Proceedings Task Force charged with evaluating the state of remote proceedings and connecting best practices for virtual hearings from across the state.

The next challenge will be ensuring courts have the technology and resources necessary to accommodate new functions. Another will be maintaining a sense of community when physical proximity isn’t forcing it.

“The court as a place is not going away,” said Sanjay Tailor, Presiding Judge of the County Division in Cook County Circuit Court. “It just might be different. ... At 9:30 in the Daley Center, the elevators may not be as crowded as they used to be.”

‘Necessity made us do it faster’

Although courts have seemingly adjusted well to new norms, there is still much to learn and needs to be met. Many say the pandemic forced a re-evaluation of the courts’ technological prowess, or lack thereof.

While judges have traditionally had a “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” mindset — as Chief Judge David Vancil of the 9th Judicial Circuit in Macomb put it — there appears to be a sense of open-mindedness surrounding remote proceedings two years after the system’s hand was forced.

In March 2020, the Illinois Supreme Court came close to shutting down court operations, limiting them to “essential” operations. Eugene Doherty, chief judge of the 17th Judicial Circuit in Rockford, was at the forefront of figuring out how to move the courts forward as vice chair of the Court Operations During COVID-19 Task Force.

Doherty said courthouses were struggling to figure out how to continue to do business in some manner without bringing people inside the building. Many did not have the infrastructure or the technology to do business remotely. “There was scrambling that went on all over the state,” he said.

The 12-member task force was charged with lessening that scramble.

Members had to determine how technology might appropriately be used for jury selection and trials, as well as the use of remote proceedings in civil and criminal cases. There had to be particular regard to assurances of due process and the logistics of maintaining safety for court personnel, litigants and the public.

“If you had convened the committee in January of 2020, and said we’d like to move our courthouses to have a remote capability in all of our courtrooms ... I think that committee would still be meeting,” Doherty said. “Because it looked like a very daunting task until necessity made us do it faster.”

Now, it seems, circuit courts have settled into equilibrium.

“The question for the future is how many of the changes the court might decide to keep in one form or another, and how many will ultimately be repealed,” he said.

Doherty said there are difficulties in offering a hybrid model where people can choose to show up or dial in. From his perspective, hybrid arrangements present more of a challenge than choosing one way of operating or the other.

The task force will present its professional perspective to the Illinois Supreme Court in September. It will examine issues beyond remote appearances, so its recommendations will be on a wider array of pandemic-era measures, Doherty said.

“The big-picture sense is the change that can seem impossible, can still be achieved when it’s necessary. ... That we can respond to a challenge, that the judicial system is flexible enough to meet the challenges that we couldn’t have foreseen — we have that arrow in our quiver. And so that knowledge is invaluable for future challenges.”

Theis said the transformational period of the courts has been both amazing and frightening. While every courthouse in the state shut down on March 17, 2020, the road ahead appeared very unclear. As the pandemic loomed over court operations, all services felt essential.

“We thought, well, people can be locked in their houses; we need domestic violence courts. People may have psychotic breaks; you need mental health courts. Vulnerable people can be isolated; we need guardianship courts. Crime is still going to happen; we need those courts,” Theis said. “The big lesson is that everything we do is essential, especially at a time of crisis.”

A spur to upgrade

Some judges would prefer that hybrid courtroom operations remain in place, and the creation of the Remote Proceedings Task Force is evidence they will likely continue in some form. Chief Justice Anne M. Burke has made several statements advancing the idea of hybrid court operations since the onset of the pandemic.

In a 2021 letter to judges and court personnel across the state, Burke said the significant benefits of remote proceedings cannot be ignored. She noted the option to appear remotely “will continue as a key component in keeping our court system open and accessible.”

Tailor believes remote hearings present the opportunity for efficiencies in the system. He said judges in the County Division appear in person two to three days a week. Even when in the building, they hear cases remotely as well.

“It doesn’t make sense to require a lawyer or a pro se litigant to come down to the Daley Center for a two-minute hearing when they can do it from the comfort of their office or home.”

But at the same time, he noted, there’s tremendous value in having an in-person hearing in select situations, particularly in a dispositive motion type setting or a trial.

Diann Marsalek, presiding judge of the Traffic Division in Cook County Circuit Court, said litigants have adapted well to remote court proceedings in her division and she anticipates that all minor traffic cases will remain remote.

“Before the pandemic, people would have to take a day off of work. We used to hear stories sometimes that if people were on probation with a job, they would lose their job because they had to take a day off work to come to court. We used to hear mothers of young children tell us that they had to bring all their kids down to court because they can’t find a babysitter,” Marsalek said.

Many people complained of how expensive and inconvenient it is to find parking downtown or to use public transportation.

“A lot of these people have very limited financial resources. This has basically alleviated all those concerns and those problems because people now are Zooming in from their homes or from their job.”

Although there was initially a learning curve, Marsalek perceives a level of comfort with the system now.

“Overall, the lawyers have told me they’re very happy that the cases are still moving, and that there is this huge backlog that some other areas are experiencing because they weren’t moving as many cases through as we did. We’ve been able to really get a lot of cases disposed of during the pandemic, thanks to Zoom.”

The Illinois Supreme Court has been working on initiatives prior to the pandemic to set time standards for case closures in trial courts across the state. It also created the Technology Modernization Program, which has given chief judges and trial court administrators the opportunity to thoroughly assess technology needs and request funding for upgrades.

“A lot of courts were probably getting maximum use out of the technology they had before they would replace it. It’s common to wait until something fails to upgrade it,” said Vancil, the chief judge in Macomb. “But with the various sources of funds that were made available, it sped that process up tremendously.”

Technology upgrades will allow the courts to operate when a physical location is closed for any reason, be it the pandemic, a snowstorm or any other event, he noted.

The Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts brought on enterprise technology provider Guidehouse as consultant for the upgrade program. “They came around to each of the circuits and visited with chief judges, trial court administrators, our IT people and circuit clerks, and did a survey of things, technology wise, that we needed,” Vancil said.

“They took that information back to form a report, then made grant applications for those things with Supreme Court funding. In this circuit, we’ve pretty much got 100% of what we have asked for ... that upgraded our core facilities to make things easier for us.”

Vancil said in his circuit, remote proceedings have shown clear benefits in juvenile court, where some parents lack transportation or, in some circumstances, are incarcerated and otherwise unable to participate in a family or juvenile case. Appearing remotely, especially in those types of circumstances, will continue in Vancil’s court.

A broader point of view

Other ongoing efforts also present the opportunity to sweep in new thinking.

Theis said the Illinois Supreme Court has also started looking at the court system as a whole, rather than divided into categories of law. Oftentimes, she said, justices and judges get too “into their silos.” She noted the work of the diversity, equity and inclusion officer and the hiring of a behavioral health expert as initiatives that aim to address issues that cut across divisions, “looking holistically, organically at everything we do.”

Data-driven decision-making will lead some future endeavors. Judges across the state have started logging their judicial activity as part of an effort to garner detailed data on the timeline and resources needed to move cases through the judicial system.

The first appellate court redistricting in decades updated districts by population to rebalance caseloads and better serve litigants. The Judicial Code of Conduct is in the process of a potential overhaul that would modernize standards, including guidelines on judges’ use of social media.

“These initiatives all reflect on a judiciary that’s extremely aware of the necessity to examine and consider and, where necessary, implement changes,” said Doherty, the chief judge in Rockford.

“It’s a sign of a healthy judiciary that we are not sitting back letting events control us, but that we are responding quickly when challenged and planning out new directives to make the future a better one for our judiciary.”