SPRINGFIELD — A statewide Supreme Court order allowing chief circuit judges to postpone trials was partly in response to an effort by Illinois state’s attorneys, who relayed the need for relief from the state’s speedy trial law during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kane County State’s Attorney Joseph H. McMahon was one of the county prosecutors who reached out to his circuit’s chief judge, 16th Judicial Chief Judge T. Clinton Hull.
McMahon sent a letter to Hull on March 19 asking him to request that the Illinois Supreme Court invoke the 2009 Emergency Preparedness Standards that would impose relief from the speedy trial law.
“Where all the medical advice was to shut things down and social distance as much as possible, we were thinking about how that was going to impact our operations,” McMahon told the Daily Law Bulletin on Wednesday. “And what we discovered is that the mechanism to request relief from the Supreme Court has to come through the various chief judges of each circuit.”
The state’s speedy trial law requires criminal defendants held in jail to be tried by the court within 120 consecutive days from the date taken into custody. Individuals released on bail or recognizance must be tried within 160 days from the date a trial was requested.
The Supreme Court’s order on Friday authorized chief judges to delay all trials in their respective circuits for 60 days — short of McMahon’s request to suspend trials outright.
McMahon also requested the Supreme Court suspend the statutory time limits for bringing formal charges via preliminary hearing or grand jury indictment. The court did not address that in its order.
He said grand juries must still convene since the Supreme Court has not suspended the time limit for bringing charges via grand jury indictment.
“Now, we’ve made accommodations and we’ve moved them to a bigger physical location, to spread them out and maintain way more than six feet between everybody,” McMahon said.
“The reality is, the longer we go through this, I think the more difficult if not impossible, it’s going to be to get members of the grand jury to come in and, not only risk their own health, but risk the health of other people.”
The Emergency Preparedness Standards for the Illinois Circuit Courts allow for changes in the procedures affecting speedy trials, among other procedures, “in the event a court facility is closed due to an emergency,” according to the document, published in January 2009.
Hamilton County State’s Attorney Justin E. Hood, who is president of the Illinois State’s Attorneys Association, said the ISAA held a conference call last week to discuss issues, including concerns about the speedy trial act.
The state’s attorneys passed the concerns to their chief judges, who communicated the message to the Illinois Supreme Court, he said.
“It’s not that we’re trying to delay the prosecution or proving someone not guilty or guilty. It is just there’s serious concerns,” Hood said. “We’re just trying to do the best thing for everybody involved… To save, ultimately hundreds and thousands of lives, versus giving someone a shorter delay. It’s a cost-benefit analysis.”
Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rosenbaum Rietz joined McMahon’s letter requesting the Illinois Supreme Court take extraordinary measures during this crisis.
“This is unprecedented, and we have to balance the harm to an individual’s rights versus the greater danger to the public,” Rietz told the Law Bulletin on Wednesday. “I think, in this unprecedented situation, we have to come down on the side of what’s best for the public.”
McMahon said it’s not really possible to successfully balance the right to a speedy trial with public health under the current conditions.
“Balance implies that things are equal, right? And given the situation that we’re in, there is nothing that we can do that will make these two things equal,” he said.