Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Cicruit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown's annual Expungement Summit set for this Saturday in Forest Park

Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court Dorothy Brown will host an Expungement Summit on Saturday, June 7, from 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. at the Living Word Christian Center, 7600 W. Roosevelt Road, in Forest Park. Clerk Brown explains the many services that will be offered at this 10th annual Summit in this current North Town News Magazine interview.

Volunteer attorneys will be on hand to assist persons in completing their petitions to expunge or seal their records, or to assist persons in determining their eligibility for this relief (if you'd like a head start on the process, or wish to determine your eligibility in advance, Clerk Brown's website offers this procedural guide). The Cook County Public Defender, the Cook County State's Attorney, and the Office of the State Appellate Defender are among the public agencies who will have representatives on site. The Illinois Prisoner Review Board will also have representatives present to assist people who may not qualify for expungement but who wish to learn about Certificates of Good Conduct and Relief from Disabilities or to pursue executive clemency or pardon. In the NTNM video, Clerk Brown even mentions that some judges may be present, volunteering their time to rule immediately on in forma pauperis petitions that persons seeking expungement may wish to file in lieu of paying the otherwise-required fees for their petitions.

This is a very nice event, a blessing for the persons who may benefit from these services, and a blessing also for those who volunteer their time to assist. It's a good thing, and I don't mean to say a thing against it.


If I have a house with a leaky roof and broken windows, the first improvement I would make is not planting flowers and decorative shrubs.

The Clerk of the Circuit Court's office is like a house with a leaky roof and broken windows.

Pull any file at the Daley Center -- if the file can be found in the first place, that is -- and examine the contents. I'm willing to bet that in any random sample of 10 files, you'd find five or six with misfiled papers; you might see misfiled documents in all 10. And don't even think about finding any recently filed documents, much less any recently-entered orders, in those files.

I do some civil appellate work. I can't tell you how often I have found the Clerk-prepared Records on Appeal to be incomplete, sometimes with documents vital to the appeal missing altogether. Yes, the Clerk's office has some very hard-working, helpful people that help attorneys like me work around these deficiencies and I am always grateful for that assistance. But I have needed it far too often.

The Clerk's Office maintains an electronic docket in civil cases which provides a rough -- often very rough -- approximation about what is going on in any given case. I also do some insurance defense work. Many times, in a case with multiple defendants, an insured may not be served until the case has been underway for some time. When I am then called in, I can't advise the insurer about the case status just by looking at the electronic docket, and all too often, especially in the smaller cases, I can't get the court file, or it's incomplete. (Court personnel apparently have access to better data than mere lawyers and the general public. I recall one incident within the past year where I told the learned judge presiding that there was no indication in the court file that my would-be client had ever been served. The judge, however, referring to the screen in front of him, said there was proof of service and, when I marveled at this, he asked, "Are you calling me a liar?" Yikes! I hastily explained that I was surprised because I knew there was nothing like this in the court file; I'd looked myself.)

Judging from conversations I've had with other attorneys, I know I'm not alone in my concerns about how things work, or not, in the Clerk's office. Ask around.

Until recently, the Clerk's Office used to allow papers in civil cases to be filed at either the Daley Center or any of the five outlying Municipal District Courthouses. Now, however, in order to file an appearance in a Markham case (6th Municipal District), one must drive to Markham. This makes no sense. The county did not suddenly splinter into six county-lets. Of course, this latest step backwards in customer service was meant as a not-so-gentle nudge for attorneys to use e-filing instead. As I reported here in February, Clerk Brown has urged the Illinois Supreme Court to make e-filing mandatory in Cook County by 2016. But the e-filing system offered by Clerk Brown's office is an expensive boondoggle, charging "convenience fees" even for filing allegedly no-fee documents and adding surcharges to filing fees even when the fee is paid by electronic withdrawal from an attorney's checking account. It is a system vastly inferior to the PACER system used by the federal courts.

Nor are the problems in the Circuit Clerk's office -- the broken windows and leaky roof -- confined to the keeping of records in civil cases. Last month I bragged about FWIW winning a Meritorious Achievement Award in the Online category at this year's Chicago Bar Association Kogan Awards luncheon. But the winners of the Kogan Awards in the Online category were Robert Herguth, Patrick McCraney, Dane Placko and Patrick Rehkamp for the BGA series "Disorder in the Bureaucracy of the Courts," concerning lost and missing papers necessary for criminal appeals. (Other entries in the BGA series also concerned the operation of Clerk Brown's office and are here and here.)

Last October, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart blamed antiquated record-keeping by the Clerk of the Circuit Court Clerk's office for the the premature release of a number of prisoners. (In the October 13, 2013 editions of the Tribune, Mitch Smith reported that Clerk Brown responded in a statement that "repeated efforts to create an interdepartment electronic records system for the criminal court have been 'continually met with resistance or disinterest.'")

It seems to me, then, that the Expungement Summit is like a decorative shrub in front of a dilapidated house: It can be admired on its own merits -- and I hope Saturday's summit proves to be a great success -- but it doesn't patch the roof or fix the broken windows on the house.

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