Judge orders temporary restraining order for Cook County court layoffs

SHARE Judge orders temporary restraining order for Cook County court layoffs

County Board President Toni Preckwinkle (left) and Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

A judge on Tuesday issued a temporary restraining order on the layoffs of over 150 Cook County court employees.

Lawyers representing the Office of the Chief Judge Timothy Evans argued Tuesday to stave off the mass terminations and for the county to provide at least $290 million to the office for the 2018 budget — over $40 million more than he’s already slated to receive.

Evans’ lawsuit argues that the cuts will hobble the court system and that County Board President Toni Preckwinkle overstepped her authority by targeting specific employees rather than letting the chief judge determine where to cut.

Sunil Bhave, an assistant attorney general representing Evans, called the cuts, and their potential effect, “breathtaking.”

“There’s no dispute that the county is facing financial problems, but this budget goes too far in significant cuts to the Office of the Chief Judge,” Bhave said before Lake County Circuit Court Judge Mitchell Hoffman. “The county has a duty to find the funds for its budget but that duty is tempered by the judge’s authority over the court system.”

In a statement, Frank Shuftan, chief spokesperson for Preckwinkle, said that the board has been working with the chief judge to resolve the budget fight as advised by Hoffman. During the court proceedings Tuesday, the two sides called for a recess to negotiate, but to no avail.

“The county approved an appropriation that it determined adequately supported the Office of the Chief Judge, and the county does not have the resources to appropriate additional funds,” Shuftan said. “Nonetheless, the chief judge, as do all offices, has the ability to seek fund transfers from the board during the year to address any operational priorities as long as the office stays within its overall allocated amounts.”

Three different funds make up the judge’s budget. For money to be transferred though, Evans would have to make a proposal to the county board, compelling them to approve the movement of the money.

Attorneys representing the chief judge argued that the judge’s office is not under the county’s jurisdiction and doesn’t have the power to say which positions should be cut.

The judge’s office, they say, is part of a “unified state court system,” which means it is an independent, co-equal branch of the state.

The county’s amended budget, passed nearly three weeks ago, lays out cuts by position, an action that Bhave said is an “intrusion” on the chief judge’s authority.

In a 12-page opinion, Hoffman agreed.

“It is clearly apparent that the chief judge, and not the county, has sole authority to make decisions over the termination of non-judicial employees of the Cook County Circuit Court,” the opinion read in part.

Evans filed the suit against the county, Preckwinkle and County Treasurer Maria Pappas last week, asking for a temporary restraining order, additional funding and for the courts to stop the county from executing the layoffs.

Thomas G. DiCianni, who is representing the county, said the chief judge may request a transfer of funds to prevent the layoffs.

“The county is asking the chief judge to operate within his budget and the funds allocated to him,” DiCianni said.

Hoffman offered to continue helping the chief judge and the county through their negotiation process. The pretrial status hearings will begin at 9 a.m. Dec. 13 in Waukegan.

Annie Thompson, spokesperson for the Illinois Attorney General’s office, said the lawsuit will ensure the courts receive enough funding to continue to carry out their services.

“The purpose of this lawsuit was to make sure the court system is funded adequately,” Thompson said. “In particular, it is critical that the public safety operations of the court system receive adequate funding. This order will accomplish that.”

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