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Chief judge’s order nearly brings Chicago’s federal court to a halt

Arraignments may occur by video; emergency judges will handle criminal cases that can’t wait

Dirksen Federal Courthouse, 219 S. Dearborn St. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times
Dirksen Federal Courthouse, 219 S. Dearborn St. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times
Sun-Times Media

Chief U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer handed down an order Monday believed to be unprecedented in the modern history of Chicago’s federal court, largely putting civil and criminal cases on hold in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

The order appears to cancel hearings in several public corruption cases, as well as the sentencing hearings for convicted Chicago Police Sgt. Xavier Elizondo and Officer David Salgado. It would also appear to put off the sentencing of ex-Ald. Edward R. Vrdolyak.

Among the public corruption defendants whose hearings appear to be delayed are former state Rep. Luis Arroyo, state Sen. Thomas Cullerton and Patrick Doherty, chief of staff to Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski.

Pallmeyer’s order also appeared to cancel a status hearing set for Wednesday in Chicago’s lawsuit against actor Jussie Smollett.

However, the order allows for arraignment by video with the permission of a defendant. So it’s unclear whether the arraignment of developer See Y. Wong — who secretly recorded then-Ald. Danny Solis and House Speaker Michael Madigan — will go forward on March 24, as scheduled.

Pallmeyer’s order canceled civil hearings and trials set between March 17 and April 3. It also said criminal proceedings that cannot be delayed will be handled by emergency judges. She delayed all plea hearings and sentencings set to begin before April 3, unless a judge is told the hearing must go forward.

“All other criminal hearings are immediately suspended and held in abeyance,” Pallmeyer wrote.

The chief judge also suspended public gatherings at the federal courthouses in Chicago and Rockford, noting that her order would either be amended or canceled by April 3. She also created a special docket where lawyers may appeal her order.

Richard Cahan, who co-authored a recent book about the history of the court titled “Chicago Rules,” said Monday, “I don’t know of any time that the court was closed, even in part, for an extended period of time.”