Category Archives: Courts

Rumble in the Courts

Dorothy Brown, Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County

A veteran Chicago attorney recently filed a defamation lawsuit against Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown that claims she sought to damage the lawyer’s reputation in retaliation for his efforts to expose alleged corruption in the Clerk’s office.

The federal lawsuit—filed in June on behalf of attorney David Novoselsky—accuses Brown of using her office and employees to squash his efforts to bring what he calls “good-faith disputes” to court and for taking action against him personally and professionally.

This is the latest salvo in a lengthy and increasingly costly legal battle between the two parties that started in 2004. Brown claims legal actions brought by Novoselsky are getting expensive, with taxpayers on the hook for more than $1 million to defend against those cases.

The latest lawsuit, a case where Novoselsky himself is the plaintiff, claims Brown tried to damage Novoselsky’s reputation by publicizing a complaint she and her office made against the lawyer that was filed with the legal regulatory arm of the Illinois Supreme Court, the Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission.

That complaint to regulators alleged Novoselsky’s legal actions against Brown were part of a media campaign aimed at derailing her political career, according to the federal lawsuit.

The lawsuit goes on to say that Brown “retaliated against Novoselsky by personally contacting his client in a pending matter, disparaging Novoselsky’s general reputation for honesty, integrity and ability in his profession,” later indicating in the suit that as “a result of defendant Brown’s retaliatory acts, Novoselsky has suffered financial damage, reputational damage, and deterioration to his physical and mental well-being.”

Brown told the Better Government Association there’s no merit to his claims.

Either way, Novoselsky has been a thorn in Brown’s side for years, filing numerous legal actions against her office, either on his own or on behalf of clients.

Brown’s agency is the “official keeper of records for all judicial matters brought into” the county’s court system, according to her website.

As a result, the basic premise of many of the legal actions filed by Novoselsky revolved around an alleged misappropriation and misuse of court automation and document storage fees collected by Brown’s office. The fees are two of many types of fees collected by the office, which, according to Brown, bring in around $300 million annually.

In one Novoselsky filing with the county court’s criminal division, an effort was brought to appoint a special prosecutor to criminally investigate Brown for misuse of the funds. The request was ultimately denied, while many of the cases or Brown’s involvement in cases involving these funds have been dismissed.

For her part, Brown portrayed Novoselsky’s past and present claims as nonsense.

She said she’s at a loss to explain the latest filing—the defamation suit, which seeks nearly $1 million in damages—and will try to have it thrown out.

“We were a little disappointed by it. We were a little confused by it,” Brown told the BGA.

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For his part, Novoselsky contends his legal actions have nothing to do with a financial or personal agenda against Brown, but rather with clients who are concerned about where money goes in the county’s court system.

He also disputed Brown’s assertion that his lawsuits are a drain on county taxpayers.

In a BGA interview, he countered: “I cost the county money? She costs the county money.”

(He also contended that, based on a line of questioning, the BGA seemed to be taking sides with Brown, so he subpoenaed the BGA for documents relating to her. The BGA, a non-profit, non-partisan government watchdog has objected to the subpoenas, claiming protection under the Illinois Reporter’s Privilege Act.)

Brown’s ethics were previously the subject of a BGA/FOX Chicago News investigation that looked into her office’s Jeans Day practice, which allowed employees to wear jeans in exchange for cash payments to an office fund. What happened with most of that cash was unclear.

Brown has been embroiled in other legal battles.

Last year, Brown filed a $1.25-million defamation suit against Terrence O’Brien, board president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. Brown and O’Brien were both candidates in the 2010 Democratic primary for Cook County Board president. Brown’s suit against O’Brien stemmed from an O’Brien campaign ad that called Brown “ethically challenged.”

Saying in a statement that it was “for the good of the Democratic Party and as a show of unity,” Brown withdrew her lawsuit against O’Brien fewer than five months after filing it.

O’Brien and Brown—who ran unsuccessfully for Chicago mayor in 2007—lost in the primary for Cook County Board president to Toni Preckwinkle, as did the incumbent, Todd Stroger.

This story was reported and written by BGA Investigator James Edwards, who can be reached at (312) 821-9036, or at jedwards@bettergov.org.

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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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