Put aside for a moment Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown’s problems with federal investigators and questionable judgment. Consider first the dire straits of the office she runs.
The Circuit Court clerk’s office is responsible for maintaining and archiving every court record in Cook County — every traffic ticket, every request for a trial continuance, every deposition in a murder case. The ability of judges, lawyers and the general public to access records quickly and completely can mean the difference between someone sitting in jail for one month or 18.
Yet lawyers complain constantly about long delays, incomplete records and lost documents. They marvel that Cook County’s court system still relies heavily on paper — that stuff made from trees — while court systems across the country have gone completely electronic.
The Circuit Court clerk’s office is woefully overdue for the kind of full modernization that has not happened under four-term incumbent Brown. The office needs a big change at the top. In the March 15 Democratic primary, the Sun-Times endorses clerk candidate Jacob Meister, a lawyer and civil rights advocate who has managed a sizable law firm and offers excellent ideas for bringing the office into the 21st Century.
Also on the ballot is Michelle Harris, a Chicago alderman with little management experience. Harris does have the backing of the Cook County Democratic Party, but that is not necessarily cause for joy. Party leaders traditionally have eyed the clerk’s office as an opportunity for coveted patronage appointments. We’re not sure all those sad-eyed lawyers waiting in line for files stuck in some other building are the party leaders’ first concern.
The winner in the Democratic primary will face Diane Shapiro, Republican committeeman of Chicago’s 46th Ward, in the November general election. Shapiro is running unopposed in her party’s primary.
Meister, a practicing attorney for 25 years who previously ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate, has litigated cases across the country and knows first-hand what an efficient court system looks like. We like his common-sense plan to keep files for all open cases at the very courthouses where cases are pending and moving files to off-site warehouses only when cases are closed. Currently, files for active and pending cases end up in warehouses. Records are logged on databases that don’t interface with each other. Meister wants to bring one of the largest court systems in the country into a fully paperless modern world.
To improve the accuracy of court files, Meister says he would assign a docket clerk to each courtroom whose main job would be to work with judges, lawyers and litigants to ensure that an accurate account of proceedings is recorded in real time. The detailed minutes would be made available online, along with links to related documents. Meister also would consider supporting legislation to make the clerk’s job an appointed position — with chief judges doing the hiring — rather than an elected office, saying the office has “become far too political.”
Cook County Democratic Party leaders initially endorsed Brown for re-election, then rescinded the endorsement when it was revealed she is the focus of a federal corruption probe. The party flipped the endorsement to Harris, a non-lawyer whose only administrative experience was as secretary to the Cook County Board.
No charges have been filed against Brown, but she is working under a cloud. Last year, a former employee of Brown’s office was charged with lying to a federal grand jury, to which he pleaded not guilty, about his 2014 hiring and a $15,000 loan he gave to a company run by Brown’s husband, Benton Cook III. The former employee’s indictment was connected to “an investigation of possible criminal violations in connection with the purchasing of jobs and promotions within the clerk’s office,” the U.S. attorney’s office said.
There also are questions about a land deal involving Brown, her husband and a campaign contribution. And Brown has a history of showing bad judgment. Years ago, to cite an early red flag, she charged employees money —which she said went to charity — to wear blue jeans to work.
In an interview with the Sun-Times Editorial Board, and in his completed questionnaire, Meister made no bones that properly upgrading the clerk’s office will take more money. But he’s exactly right that such upfront costs will pay off in the long run, as they have for other court systems, in greater efficiencies and savings.
For profiles of candidates running in the March 15 primary election, along with videos, election news updates and candidates’ answers to our questionnaires, go to suntimescandidates.com.