There have been no court recorders in the 1st Municipal District Cook County Eviction courts for the past fifteen years.
I'm going to say that again so it sinks in. There have been no court recorders in 1st Municipal District Cook County Eviction courts for the past fifteen years.
No tape recorders either. No digital recorders. And you can't bring your own, they're banned as part of the electronic device ban along with cameras, cell phones and computers.
Court recorders, or court reporters, are those people with the special typewriters called stenotypes who sit near the judge and write down everything that's said during a trial. If you watch any episode of "Law & Order" you'll see them. But if you go to Chicago eviction court, you won't. They were removed due to budget cuts in 2003. That means no transcripts for you, which means no official record of your first trial to bring with you should you choose to appeal an eviction ruling.
While I'm on the subject I should mention that this is not only the case in Chicago. Miami and San Francisco don't have court reporters in their eviction courtrooms either. Boston and New York at least offer digital transcripts so it looks like they've got some sort of recording equipment installed. Washington DC's court website makes no mention of which departments have recording equipment or personnel on hand.
According to the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts (AOIC), five digital recorders were purchased at the end of June 2018, one for each eviction courtroom at the Loop Courthouse. However, according to the last updates from the Chicago Appleseed Foundation the AOIC has not yet provided a date as to when the recorders will be installed. Based on the very buggy and highly criticized implementation of the court's new "eFile" system, we can expect that any new recording equipment will also be riddled with bugs for the first few months if not years after it is installed. People will forget to turn it on. They'll forget to turn it off between trials. The microphones may be misplaced. The recordings may be unintelligible or otherwise useless.
Purchase and installation of digital recorders fit for judicial use costs anywhere from $7000 to $15000 per courtroom. There are additional associated costs involved, including hiring more people to transcribe those recordings into text transcripts, but those costs are far lower than putting an actual trained recorder in every courtroom. Illinois court system in 2017 had a fund of just under $25 million earmarked for "establishing and maintaining automated systems for keeping court records." The money is there but AOIC may need a strong nudge to spend it.
Why Does This Matter?
According to recent studies by the Lawyers' Committee for Better Housing, only 12% of tenants in eviction court bring lawyers with them. This is in contrast to the 81% of landlords who have representation.
Due to the high caseload in the court system, if you have to go before a judge in eviction court your hearing will last approximately two minutes. That's all you get. Two minutes. During those two minutes you may be asked to sign things like payment plans or judge's rulings without enough time to read them in detail. You may be awash in legal jargon that you do not understand. Two out of three tenants will lose their cases. If you're smart and/or lucky you might get the case pushed back, but the odds are eventually your landlord will win.
You have the right to appeal a decision against you in court. If it means the difference between losing your home and staying, you want to file that appeal if you have even the slightest chance of winning. But appellate courts rely heavily on records of your prior hearings. Without transcripts the only evidence you'll be able to provide for your appeal will be documents that you may have been coerced into signing and the bits you can remember of that first two minute trial, which won't help your case terribly much.
It's also worth mentioning that trials which happen in the dark may not be 100% legal. The judge or courtroom staff may make derogatory comments or illegal decisions. Courtrooms with recorders present are accountable. The actions occurring within become part of the public record. I realize that some folks are against the idea of adding even more surveillance to modern society, but courtrooms are one of the few environments where you pretty much expect everything to be "on the record." In Illinois judges are basically appointed for life. They can be voted off the bench but this happens very, very rarely. There are any number of judges sitting in the county courthouse that won their positions through good politics rather than competence. And they are hearing your cases alone. You can request a jury but few tenants do. You can bring an attorney but again, few tenants do.
What Can Tenants Do?
In the absence of official transcripts the appellate court will accept something called a bystander's report. Bystander's reports can be taken by anyone, official or not, who is present in the courtroom at the time of a trial. This means that a friend with good ears and a notepad can be of great assistance. However, it should be noted that if a bystander's report is not very, very thorough it can be discarded by the appellate court as faulty hearsay. So, if you're going to bring a friend to take a bystander's report try and make it your friend who's in law school or that one kid from your English class who took really good notes, and make sure they write down the point of every single sentence uttered at your trial.
Another alternative is to hire your own court recorder to come with you to your trial. There are plenty of court reporting businesses in Chicago that have been certified by the state of Illinois. If you can afford them their transcripts will be seen as valid by the appellate court.
If your case is heard after the point where digital recorders are installed, have someone take notes anyhow. Speak clearly and loudly so that the microphones can pick up what you say. Obtain a copy of the recordings as well as any official transcripts soon after your trial. You want to make sure that the data obtained is not corrupted or flawed, and that the transcription is accurate. This is especially important if you speak with a noticeable foreign accent that can obscure your English. If you get evicted this may be difficult for you to keep on your to-do list, so you may want to ask a friend or family member to stay on you about the matter until you get it done.
You should absolutely not rely on your landlord's attorney to take a transcript, nor should you plan on doing it yourself if you are the defendant in the case. You need to spend your two minutes in front of the judge listening carefully and being present in the moment, not buried in a notebook.
What Can Others Do?
I should note that eviction court is not the only part of the Cook County Court system without reporting services. Other areas without coverage include the Law Division, which hears cases relating to claims exceeding $30,000, and the Chancery Division, which hears cases including class action suits and foreclosures.
If you live in Illinois and want to see better transcript options available for the Chicago eviction courts you can contact the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts to request that they fast track the installation of recording systems. (Note that if you are reading this after the end of 2018 they probably are already installed so you can skip this part.)
If you're a good note taker and know that a friend or family member is having problems with their rent, let them know that you're willing to go with them and take a bystander's report.
If you live outside of Illinois, it may be worth doing a dive into your own local court system to find out what transcription services they offer. It's very possible that renters in your own city are dealing with a similar lack of support in court.
Until such time as tort reform measures can bring about a slowdown in the number of cases flowing through the court system and the high number of defendants who must represent themselves in court due to lack of funds, the need for accurate recording systems in courtrooms will continue to increase. When most people picture a courtroom the court reporter is usually part of their mental image. Let's do what we can to ensure that the reality matches the ideal in Cook County.
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