Iris Y. Martinez
Running for: Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County
Political party affiliation: Democrat
Political/civic background: I was sworn into my first term in the Illinois State Senate on January 8, 2003, to represent the people of Illinois’ 20th Legislative District. My election marked the first time a Hispanic woman had been elected to the State Senate in Illinois history. History was again made when I served as Assistant Majority Leader from 2007-2008, a position never held by a Latina. I was named Majority Caucus Whip in 2013 and became Assistant Majority Leader again in 2018. As State Senator, I advocate for affordable housing, expanding health care access, and ensuring seniors and the disabled receive proper care. Additionally, I am a strong voice for Illinois’ children and promote programs to improve the quality of education for youth in Illinois.
Occupation: Illinois State Senator, 20th District
Education: Bachelors Degree from Northeastern Illinois University in Public Policy and Administration
Campaign website: irisforclerk.com
The Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board sent the nominees for Cook County Circuit Court Clerk a list of questions to find out their views on a range of important issues. Iris Y. Martinez submitted the following responses:
1. Lawyers complain that employees of the Circuit Court Clerk are inept at managing Zoom sessions during the pandemic. They complain that they are left waiting in Zoom waiting rooms for hours without even being told whether there’s someone on the other end to eventually admit them. They also complain that it is difficult to learn which Zoom meeting to join to get into a particular courtroom. How would you solve these problems?
In any large organization, problem solving requires analysis, action, and metrics. If I am elected Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County (hereinafter “Clerk” and “Clerk’s Office” or “Office”), I’ll ask the County Board to provide resources for a full-scale review of the Office’s technology, processes, and employee readiness. My management team and I will interview and survey clerks, lawyers, judges and litigants to scope out typical problems. I’ll ask my policy team to assess whether those problems fit general fact patterns. I anticipate that the problems with electronic meetings will be solved by combination of adjusting the technology, streamlining the operations, and retraining the clerks. Most importantly, I’d require my management team to implement a specific plan to improve user outcomes then to provide me daily and weekly reports about progress. Accountability is everything.
2. If even skilled lawyers are feeling stymied by remote sessions, what can the clerk’s office do to help pro se litigants navigate the system?
Even before COVID-19, pro se litigants were already at a disadvantage. Two fundamental changes will help pro se litigants and everyone who interacts with the courts.
First, the technology must be more user friendly. For example, the Office’s website should be easier to navigate, and people must have easy access to their court records. We must remember that not everyone is computer proficient, so everything must be simple and accessible. I believe that until a vaccine is available, the courts will continue to hold virtual hearings, and electronic hearings may continue after the pandemic. It’s essential that the technology is improved immediately and permanently.
Second, the Clerk’s employees must refocus on customer service. We must create an environment where it’s easy for clerks to help pro se litigants. I believe that the Office needs to develop a unit that works with people who use the phone or come to the counter requesting assistance and with the not-for-profit agencies that assist low-income residents.
3. Now that Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown is stepping down, many of her top employees also are leaving. How will you fill Shakman-decree exempt positions to make sure you hire highly capable people who understand the court system?
Employees and job vacancies in Shakman-decree exempt positions are critical to changing the culture at the Clerk’s Office. If elected, I will use a robust and transparent interview process in making employment decisions. Shakman-decree exempt positions and those corresponding employees will help me undertake the important and necessary changes at the Clerk’s Office.
Illegal hiring has no place in the Clerk’s Office, let alone in any public office. I have spent my career fighting for working families and breaking barriers for women and people of color. I will bring that same passion, dedication, and ability to produce results to the Office. I will implement a Model Code of Conduct that (i) bans political contributions from employees and vendors doing business at the Circuit Court Clerk’s Office; and (ii) creates high standards of conduct to enhance public confidence and preserve the integrity of the judicial system.
4. Should the chief judge’s office use “courtroom administrators” to perform some tasks traditionally performed by Circuit Court clerk employees? Why or why not?
If I’m elected Clerk, I will focus on improving the efficiency and efficacy of the Office. I plan to improve working conditions for the courtroom clerks. If a good case can be made that courtroom clerks will be better able to focus on the essential parts of their jobs if people other than courtroom clerks handle some tasks, then I’ll consider such reorganization. But I will not consider reclassifying clerks as “courtroom administrators” who would work for the Office of the Chief Judge. I intend to change outcomes, not just organization charts.
5. The Cook County courts struggled with a backlog of cases even before the pandemic arrived. Now that backlog is expected to explode. What will you do about that?
If elected, I will work with other leaders in Cook County to address the backlog. The Clerk’s Office will need the assistance and support of the Board President, the Board, the Chief Judge’s Office, the State’s Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, the Public Guardian’s Office, and the Sheriff’s Office. The Clerk’s Office is not an island. I believe that by working together, we can develop a cohesive and comprehensive plan that will address the current backlog, expected increase of backlogged cases, and prepare the system to handle thousands of expungements.
6. Traffic cases at the Daley Center are being held via Zoom, not in person. What will you do to you to make this operate more smoothly?
The Clerk’s website and electronic records systems need to be reorganized and improved. We need to make it easy to use with clear content. Litigants and lawyers need easy access case information, hearing dates and remote session rooms. The necessary changes will require financial support from the County Board, coordination with other County Offices, help from the employees and their union, and changes to Office management. If elected Clerk, I will work with stakeholders to identify and address the problems we can solve quickly and to make a plan to bring lasting improvement to the Office.