Rebecca R. Pallmeyer
Rebecca R. Pallmeyer

The courthouse doors in the Northern District of Illinois will open a crack on Monday as the chief federal trial judge eases restrictions imposed in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Members of the public will be allowed in the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in Chicago and the Roszkowski U.S. Courthouse in Rockford beginning next week, Chief U.S. District Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer said Wednesday in her virtual State of the Court address.

A limited number of court personnel will be returning to the courthouses, but most employees will be encouraged to continue working from home.

Judges will be allowed to hold proceedings in their assigned courtrooms, but only on a part-time basis and only for matters that must be conducted in person.

Judges and lawyers are urged to handle most other matters relying on the filings or by telephone or videoconferencing software.

No jury trials will be held before Aug. 3, and priority will be given to defendants who are in custody.

Everyone must wear face coverings in the public areas of the courthouses and observe social distancing while in line at security stations. Only two people may ride an elevator at a time.

Visitors must enter the Dirksen Federal Courthouse through the north revolving door on Dearborn Street and leave through the Quincy Street exits.

Pallmeyer noted judges in the Northern District of Illinois traditionally are available for “face time” with lawyers.

“That process, unfortunately, is going to have to change very significantly in the next few weeks,” she said.

She said it won’t be easy.

“It is very hard for us to move from the way we used to do things to the way we have to do them, at least for now,” Pallmeyer said, “because we also like sitting on the bench, we like seeing you, we like hearing your arguments on both sides, we like resolving disputes orally if we can.”

The ReStart Task Force, headed by U.S. District Judge Matthew F. Kennelly, is continuing to plan for the court’s reopening, Pallmeyer said.

Members include U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan E. Cox and U.S. District Judges John J. Tharp Jr. and Manish S. Shah.

Also serving on the task force is Thomas G. Bruton, clerk of the U.S. District Court.

Previous chief judges have given their annual addresses at luncheons sponsored by the Federal Bar Association’s Chicago Chapter.

The coronavirus pandemic forced Pallmeyer to deliver her first annual address in a webinar.

“I’m going to look forward to doing this in real life next year,” she said.

Chapter President Barry E. Fields of Kirkland & Ellis LLP introduced Pallmeyer.

In July 2019, Pallmeyer became the first female chief judge since the court was established 200 years earlier.

She succeeded Ruben Castillo, the first Latino judge to lead the court.

Castillo could have served as chief judge for another year. But he cleared the way for Pallmeyer to succeed him by stepping down from his position before she turned 65 in September 2019.

Under federal law, chief judge vacancies are filled by the jurist with the most seniority who is under the age of 65.

In her address, Pallmeyer said four new district judges — Mary M. Rowland, Martha M. Pacold, Steven C. Seeger and John F. Kness — joined the court in the last year.

Two new magistrate judges, Beth W. Jantz and Heather K. McShain, also took the bench.

Castillo and U.S. Magistrate Judge Sidney I. Schenkier retired from the bench in the past year.

U.S. District Judge John F. Grady died in December at the age of 90.

Pallmeyer noted the court celebrated the 200th anniversary of its founding in 2019 with a series of events over the year.

“The number 19 has a lot of significance for me,” she said. “2019 was the year I became chief judge.

“2019 was also the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in the United States throughout the nation,” she added.

However, Pallmeyer said, there is one thing about the number 19 she does not like.

“Now it’s associated with a virus,” she said. “I hope that association won’t last forever.”