Illinois’ courts can begin to return to normal operations on June 1, the Illinois Supreme Court said Wednesday in an order and accompanying operational guidelines.

Under the order, effective on June 1, chief judges in each of the judicial circuits have authority to implement plans for each of the counties they serve based on a set of specific factors.

The high court still urges social distancing measures to remain in place and asks for courts to find a way to reduce the number of people physically present in court facilities while the COVID-19 virus continues to spread.

Since March 17, the justices ordered the state judiciary to limit in-person proceedings to only essential matters, delaying most other matters and shifting a healthy share of the courts’ business to videoconferencing platforms like Zoom.

Remote hearings should continue where appropriate. But the new guidelines say that the current limits on in-person hearings will be “relaxed in accordance with a chief judge’s local plan.”

“This directive acknowledges both the successful use of remote hearings during the stay-at-home order and the reality that jurisdictions will need to take the appropriate amount of time to gradually resume holding matters in the courthouse,” the memo continues. “In most jurisdictions, this will be a slow process and the pace will be dependent on local conditions which may change rapidly.”

What remains from the current state of affairs in courts: Chief judges can still continue trials as they see fit, and those continuances won’t run afoul of speedy-trial rules until further order of the high court.

Under M.R. 30370, In re: Illinois Courts Response to COVID-19 Emergency, chief judges should consider public-health officials’ recommendations, facility and staffing situations, case deadlines, cases’ current delays and any prejudice that may come from further delays.

“Chief circuit judges should understand that local conditions may change, and their plans should contain contingencies in that event,” the order says.

In a press release announcing the order and guidelines, Chief Justice Anne M. Burke praised the work of the judiciary since the start of the pandemic.

“Our courts around the state have risen to this enormous challenge to continue the Judicial Branch mission to protect the rights and liberties of all by providing equal access to justice, resolving disputes, and upholding the rule of law,” Burke said. “The Court realizes that the health crisis is not over, but we must advance justice in a safe and organized manner.”

Triage tactics

The guidelines include a section on triaging and prioritizing cases that have logjammed over the past few months during statewide stay-at-home orders.

As long as those state and local orders restrict access to courthouses, the courts should be selective over what cases get heard.

“If possible and where appropriate, judges should hold informational meetings with local bar associations (via Zoom or other video conference service) or hold smaller meetings with attorneys and litigants about their cases,” the guidelines read.

The courts should also look at data for various case types to manage the backlog.

“While this iterative process will vary greatly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, some proceedings will be obvious priorities,” the memo reads.

Safety assurances

Addressing the health of the individuals going into court, the memo says the local plans need to ensure that individuals feel safe before and after arriving. The circuit courts should work with local health authorities to determine screening criteria in each community.

Courtrooms, clerks offices and public spaces should have hand sanitizer available, and those spaces should also install acrylic glass germ guards.

The courts should also follow the facial covering rules set by the state, even offering masks to those who arrive without one. Notices to come to court should outline the mask requirements, the memo says.

Among the changes to expect are new foot traffic patterns, different arrangements inside courtrooms, tape markings to guide social distancing and limits on who can enter court facilities.

“Subject to constitutional limitations, entry into the courthouse should be limited to lawyers and named parties,” the memo says. “Self-represented litigants should be allowed to bring one friend or family member with them into the courthouse.”

The section also contemplates use of restaurant-style pagers to avoid crowds from building.

Remote remains

The guidelines encourage remote proceedings when possible, with limited exceptions for jury trials. Hearings for exchanging documents or setting schedules should be held remotely. The rules should also allow for anyone involved in the case to appear remotely, including the judge, clerk, lawyers and parties.

“All possible measures should be taken to avoid large ‘cattle calls’ or move them to a facility that allows for appropriate social distancing,” the guidelines say.