One year ago today is when I tried my last in-person case.
My recollection is that up until the night before, although Coronavirus was a growing concern, it still was not at the forefront of my consciousness. Then that night, within a short period of time the President, after having downplayed the virus for over a month, made a nationally televised address to the nation about it. Almost simultaneously, it was announced that Tom Hanks and several NBA players had been diagnosed with it, and that the NBA was shutting down its season.
On March 12th, I had a fairly busy court schedule, all at the Daley Center. I had three DUI cases that morning and another case set for trial that afternoon. That morning, things seemed different. The Public Defenders were requesting longer than usual continuance dates in anticipation of the court being closed for some period of time, possibly six weeks. And the Judges were not issuing warrants against defendants who failed to appear.
At lunch time, I thought about going to a downtown sandwich shop to get away from my office for a half hour, but then for the first time I though about whether I really wanted to sit in a crowded restaurant and it gave me the chills. Instead, I quickly dashed into a lunch place and brought my lunch back to my office.
That afternoon, I came back to court for my trial. The case involved a State Trooper, and State Trooper court calls are notoriously busy because of all the serious traffic tickets that they write – not just DUIs, but aggravated speeding, reckless driving and Scott’s Law violations. This call was no different, and I sat in the packed courtroom, being extra attentive to every cough and sneeze. Whenever possible, I stood outside in the hallway, which was slightly less crowded.
Many of the attorneys were requesting continuances, just so they didn’t have to linger in the courtroom. But I had a very weak case, which I felt was a certain “not guilty” and I wanted to get this over and off my list of things to worry about in case of a shutdown.
It took a while for the court to go through the call. Finally, just as we were about to start, a fellow attorney DM’ed me with a rumor that one of the Daley Center Judges had been diagnosed with the Coronavirus and that Chief Judge Evans would be announcing a court shutdown that evening.
The trial went as expected, and my client was found not guilty. The Judge coughed a few times during the trial, and so did I. Afterwards, I told him about the rumors which were all new to him. As it turned out, neither rumor was true. The courts did not close that night, and although several judges were eventually diagnosed with COVID, none of that happened until several weeks later.
The next day, I had a lighter schedule, just one gun case at a Chicago Branch court. Unlike the Daley Center the day before, the Judge was issuing warrants for anyone who failed to appear. As I sat and waited, I thought of all the people taking public transportation to come and sit in courtrooms across the county and how this could be spreading the virus. This was before we had the term “super-spreader event.” My gun case was dismissed (my client was authorized to possess an automated weapon) and I went back to my office wondering when Chief Judge Evans would be making any announcements.
Nothing happened until that night, when the Order finally came. Cook County would close their courts starting Tuesday, March 17th through April 15th.
That still left Monday. That morning, I came to court wearing surgical gloves (but no masks – I was more concerned about surfaces. Besides, the Sheriff probably would not allow me to wear a surgical mask in court). I had two DUI cases in two different Markham courtrooms, and the experiences in each could not be more different. One opened up reasonably on time, and the Judge ran his call like nothing unusual was happening. I was able to work out a standard plea deal (one more case resolved before the shutdown!). However, for the other courtroom, the doors remained locked for at least a half-hour. Everyone was congregating by the door, although we were trying to keep some distance between us, sort of — it was hard to break old habits. Eventually a rumor was spread that the delay was because the clerk was refusing to enter the courtroom and that the supervisor was having trouble finding a replacement. Eventually, the courtroom opened, and the Judge rushed every case through as quickly as possible. I wanted to speak to the State’s Attorney about my case, but I was told there was no time for that. On my way out of the building, I ran into another attorney, who before law school worked as an EMT. He was also wearing surgical gloves, and that was the last time I shook hands with anyone.
My last case came that afternoon at 1:00 p.m., back in the Daley Center in a civil forfeiture courtroom. My client and I arrived just before 1:00 and the courthouse had already become a ghost town. The Judge and the State’s Attorney were already rushing through cases even before the court call was scheduled to begin. I was told that the case had already been called and that the State was not proceeding with the forfeiture. The Order had already been signed before court was supposed to begin!
On Tuesday, March 17th, I was supposed to try a DUI case at the Daley Center. Currently, that case is still pending. It is set for a status in April for possible trial setting.
Looking back, it was probably good for my mental health that I went into the shutdown with a Not Guilty, two dismissals and a satisfactory plea deal. Plus, I had just settled a personal injury case the week prior.
This time off has not been totally unproductive. On March 12, 2020, I had never heard of Zoom. By late Spring, I had done Zoom depositions, attended a Zoom funeral, and helped design procedures to conduct Zoom Chicago Bar Association Judicial Evaluation Committee candidate hearings. The Courts began using it in June and I have been able to resolve many cases, as well as two Zoom trials, two Zoom summary suspension hearings and several preliminary hearings. I have also settled a personal injury case through a Zoom mediation. Many Judges and attorneys have expressed interest in continuing with the platform, at least for status hearings, after the pandemic is over.
In the meantime, we are still waiting for the resumption of regular, in-person courts. It will be interesting to see what the future will bring.