Order In The Courts? Daley Center Renovation Raises Questions

Is Cook County making best use of its (taxpayer-funded) courtrooms?

The Cook County court division that handles child-custody-type matters for unwed parents got new digs in the Daley Center earlier this year, following $2.4 million in renovations.

The division—called Parentage and Child Support Court—had been located nearby at 32 W. Randolph Street, but security there wasn’t great, with the number of arrests six times higher than the entire Daley Center, Chief Judge Timothy Evans told the Better Government Association in a recent interview.

So the court moved to a lower level of the Daley Center, replacing vacant space, and offices for Traffic Court and the City of Chicago’s Liquor Commission. The $2.4 million build-out and move were completed in February, according to Evans and the Public Building Commission, the government agency that serves as the Daley Center landlord.

Daley Center

Against that backdrop, another judge familiar with the operation called us and posed a question: Why was all that taxpayer money spent creating new courtrooms when, on the upper floors of the Daley Center, courtrooms routinely are empty in the afternoons?

“All these Chancery judges, I’m not saying they’re not working, but they’re usually in the back,” said the judge, who asked that we not publicly identify him. “At 1 o’clock you could put 10 parentage courtrooms up there.”

Speaking about no particular court section, he added: “All these judges get paid very well and there’s a certain percentage…who don’t have enough to do. The poor people’s courtrooms are mobbed, the others are empty.”

We didn’t just take the judge’s word. We roamed the hallways over several days and confirmed the empty courtrooms upstairs—and a sometimes-crowded waiting area outside the five new parentage courtrooms.

So we asked Evans, who countered that moving parentage court upstairs really wasn’t viable for two reasons.

First, the “empty” courtrooms really aren’t empty. Just because there isn’t a trial or hearing going on doesn’t mean work isn’t being done, he indicated. Judges often are in their chambers doing things, or back and forth onto their benches.

Second, Evans said he plans to increase the “staggering” of court calls, so work is spread more evenly across the Daley Center, and not just bunched up in the mornings.

This should mean more afternoon activity in courtrooms.

“The idea is to get it done right rather than fast or too fast,” said Evans.

Although Evans insisted this was about efficiency and serving litigants better, we couldn’t help but wonder whether the staggering was also intended to force judges to work more.

Last year, the BGA and FOX Chicago did a story about some judges apparently knocking off work early.

Evans said he initiated some of these courtroom usage changes before the BGA/FOX report appeared, so that wasn’t the catalyst.

Still, anyone who spends a lot of time around county courthouses after noon can see they are not exactly beehives of activity.

Either way, the judicial system has been—and will continue to be—one of the BGA’s areas of interest.

This blog entry was written and reported by Senior Investigator Patrick Rehkamp and BGA Investigator James Edwards. They can be reached at prehkamp@bettergov.org or jedwards@bettergov.org.

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