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Chief federal judge slowly trying to get court moving again, but no jury trials until August

U.S. District Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer said there will be less “face time” between attorneys and judges, and more court business done on paper.

Dirksen Federal Courthouse
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file photo

Two months after the coronavirus largely brought the work of the federal courts to a halt, Chicago’s chief federal judge has begun this week to publicly chart a path forward, with hopes of possibly resuming jury trials as soon as August.

But U.S. District Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer also said the court is carefully studying how that can be done safely. And in a general order filed Tuesday, she gave the court more time to research the issue while it slowly tries to get back to business.

“We’re starting slow because we want to make sure that the process works,” Pallmeyer said in a telephone interview with the Chicago Sun-Times.

Much of the court’s business has been on hold since the start of the pandemic. That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been plenty of work to do. Pallmeyer released a video message to the local bar Monday, in which she said more than 7,000 motions have been filed and more than 34,000 orders have been entered since mid-March.

But Pallmeyer’s new order Tuesday also allows for the scheduling of hearings, bench trials and settlement conferences in civil cases to be conducted remotely. It says that in-court hearings “are limited to urgent matters that cannot be conducted remotely.”

That means a change in culture for Chicago’s federal court. Specifically, the chief judge said there will be less “face time” between attorneys and judges, and more court business done on paper. Pallmeyer told the Sun-Times, “we want to keep the building empty to the extent possible,” so social distancing is possible for the people who are there.

“I’m very much hoping that this is a temporary change,” said Pallmeyer, who became chief judge of Chicago’s federal court last summer.

Pallmeyer said she is following guidance from the city and the state and she has appointed a task force to plan for the safe resumption of operations at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. The task force is headed by U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly, according to a court spokeswoman.

Pallmeyer said the court’s goal is to resume jury trials after August 3, assuming progress continues against the coronavirus. But she said that could come with new rules, like limits on the number of people who can stand in a line or get on an elevator.

“We know that, no matter what we do, it’s not going to be perfect,” Pallmeyer said. “And we’re doing our best to be, if not perfect, then at least very, very committed to getting it right and doing what we can to afford justice to the people of the northern district.”