Jacob Meister, Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Democratic candidate profile
He is founder and chairman of Civil Rights Agenda, a nonprofit statewide civil rights organization.
Running for: Clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court
Political/civic background: Candidate for Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County (2016)
Candidate U.S. Senate (2010)
Founder and Chairman of the Civil Rights Agenda (TCRA), a leading non-profit statewide civil rights organization dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights of LGBT people around the state.
Occupation: Attorney at Jacob Meister & Associates
Education: J.D. from the University of Wisconsin Law School, with honors in 1990
B.A. in International Studies and Political Science from The American University in Washington D.D., cum laude in 1986.
Campaign website: JacobForClerk.com
The Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board sent candidates for the Cook County Circuit Court Clerk a list of questions to find out their views on a range of important issues. Jacob Meister submitted the following responses:
What reforms would you institute to bring the technology of the office up to the standards of the clerk’s office of the U.S. Northern District of Illinois? Given budget restraints, where will you find the money to upgrade the workings of the office, making it more efficient and transparent?
The current state of the Cook County Clerk of the Court’s office is inexcusable. The taxpayers of Cook County have been promised sweeping changes to the system for two decades. Millions of taxpayer dollars later, the Clerk’s office is in worse shape than ever with Cook County lagging behind the federal court system and even DuPage County.
Although mandatory electronic filing has been implemented statewide, the Tyler Technologies system being used has not been properly customized to meet the needs and complexity of the Cook County court system. The current system as implemented in Cook County is cumbersome, riddled with errors and inefficient compared to online systems available in other courts around the country, including the federal Pacer system. In addition, digital docketing and electronically filed documents are not available as part of an online case management system that is accessible to the parties and the public after filing, making it even harder for judges, lawyers and litigants to navigate the court system.
The Clerk’s recent attempt to introduced a new case management system in the criminal division has been a failure and, as a result, the rollout to other divisions has been postponed. The system was procured and implemented in the criminal courts without first getting input from end users, without customizing the system to meet the needs of the second largest court system in the country, without adequate consideration of how the system interfaces with courtroom workflow, and without proper user training. Until these issues are addressed, the new system should not be rolled-out in other divisions of the court system.
Persistent mismanagement in the clerk’s office and a refusal to work well with other stakeholders, — including judges, lawyers, State’s Attorney, Public Defender, sheriff, and bar associations — means that the County’s investment of $36 Million in a new case management system is in jeopardy unless the next clerk is able to fix it. In the short term, I would recommend vigorous training for all users, including Judges, Clerk’s staff and Attorneys so that the benefits of the system can be realized. I will also recommend that the new case management system be further customized to meet the specific workflow of each operating division so that the case management system helps create efficiency and transparency, rather than doing the exact opposite.
Additionally, in order to remove barriers to the justice system for pro se litigants who are required to electronically file into a confusing and cumbersome electronic filing system, I will introduce a new countywide “access to justice” program for pro se litigants who often do not have access to a computer or understand how the court’s electronic systems operate. Currently, the only assistance for pro se litigants seeking to file electronically is at a courthouse, during business hours. This “unintended consequence” of the mandatory electronic filing system has created tremendous hardship for those who cannot afford a lawyer, do not have access to a computer, lack the technical knowledge of the court’s e-file system or cannot afford to miss time from work just to file a document. On day one I will begin the process of installing computer filing kiosks in public libraries and government buildings around the county and having regular e-filing training seminars around the county for reference librarians and others, thereby allowing pro se litigants the resources and assistance needed to electronically access the court system in their own neighborhoods, on evenings and weekends. Everyone in Cook County should be able to access justice in their communities, not just at a courthouse. This program can be implemented with minimal financial investment and will make a large difference in the lives of the people who are most often negatively affected by the newly mandated electronic filing system.
In addition, I will implement an electronic ticketing system that can be installed in every police car in the county so that moving violations are automated and printed at the time the ticket is written. Currently, police officers making traffic stops in the county’s 135 municipalities handwrite approximately 450,000 traffic violation tickets (in quadruplicate) every year. Once written, the tickets are manually entered into the municipal computer system, physically transmitted to the clerk’s office, and again manually entered into the clerk’s traffic court system. The paper ticket then becomes a physical court file which is maintained in the clerk’s file warehouse. The cost to equip police cars with electronic ticketing hardware is approximately $1500 per car and will cut traffic stop times in half and greatly reduce the costs and errors associated with manually entering information and maintaining paper files.
A new case docketing system has been rolled out, but the office continues to move so slowly that companies that do criminal background checks say they often can’t complete those checks in time to allow young adults to be hired for seasonal jobs. Similar delays occur elsewhere in the system. What will you do about it?
For years the docket information available on the Clerk’s website has been pathetically inadequate. The docketing system needs to be brought up to the standards of other courts in the U.S. As set forth in the answer to question 1, above, the rollout of the new case management system in the criminal division has been handled so poorly that it has caused more problems than it has solved. We must ensure that all stakeholders, including Judges, Clerks, litigants, and Lawyers, are properly trained before further implementation of the case management system occurs. The system needs to be properly customized to meet the needs of users and the workflow of our courtrooms. Ultimately, courtroom clerks need to be trained in electronic records management so that the transition from a paper-based system to digital records can be accomplished. Once this is done, each courtroom should be assigned a well trained docket clerk whose main job is to ensure an accurate electronic docket of the proceedings is maintained. The detailed electronic entries will be made available online, along with links to related documents, so each case can be easily tracked and participants in the court process and others who rely on timely accurate information — including the public, those conducting background checks and academics who rely on statistical information for scholarly research — have access to correct and timely information. A modernized system that is accessible online will result in much greater accuracy, efficiency, transparency and cost savings.
Large insurance institutions, including banks, reportedly have been moving cases to suburban counties where it is easier to deal with court clerk’s offices. This has had an impact on Cook County’s budget because court filing fees fund not only the court clerk’s office but also help cover expenses in the chief judge’s office and initiatives in the sheriff’s and public defender’s offices. What will you do to reverse the trend?
An efficient and reliable public court system is essential to an organized society. Both criminal and civil courts provide a forum for individuals and businesses to peacefully resolve disputes by neutral judges or juries. The Clerk of Court’s job is to make sure that the court system is accessible, easy to navigate and operates efficiently for all stakeholders, with minimal bureaucratic interference. The Cook County Clerk of Courts frequently fails on all fronts.
Unlike surrounding counties, including DuPage and Lake which have systematically streamlined court operations and customer service, the Cook County Clerk of Court’s office has become so difficult to navigate that those who have the opportunity to litigate in other forums often opt to have their cases heard outside of the Cook County court system. The result is that those with the most financial resources — insurance companies and financial institutions, among others — file cases outside of Cook County or transfer cases to other counties in order to avoid the inefficiency and cost of litigating the Cook County court system.
The problems in Cook County have been compounded by the fact that the clearance rate for cases (case dispositions) have dropped dramatically in the past two years, from 104% in 2016 to 77% in 2018. As a result, the Cook County courts have a reputation for being slow and backlogged among institutional litigants. Quite simply, the cost of litigating in the Cook County courts is higher than surrounding counties and wherever possible, institutional litigants choose to file cases outside of Cook County.
There is no doubt that overall case volume in Cook County is down, as are user fees which are an important part of various county budgets.
As Clerk, I will work to make the Courts more efficient and more attractive to institutional litigants. In addition to implementing new technology, customer service needs to be improved. Among other things, I plan to develop a system for the Clerk’s office to offer customer service representatives who will provide services for a fee to law firms, volume filers, and institutional litigants.
Lawyers complain that court files often are incomplete. They say there are sometimes two or three separate files for a single case because things get lost. To what extent do you believe this is really a problem? What will you do about it?
This is a major problem with the court system in Cook County. Right now we have a Clerk of the Circuit Courts office that is broken both operationally and ethically. Years of patronage and mismanagement have left us with a justice system that doesn’t work for the residents of Cook County that are in most need. Court filings are kept on three different databases that are unable to fully interface with one another. The Clerk’s office also routinely moves files for cases after three years from the date of filing to off-site warehouses, even if the case is still active and pending. After the files are moved off-site, paperwork for those cases have to be transferred as “loose paper” to the warehouses to be matched up with the original file. In a warehouse filled with file boxes containing hundreds of millions of pieces of paper and operating with three separate file management computer systems, that task becomes nearly impossible.
This a very serious problem that impedes justice. Missing paperwork and “loose paper” leaves cases and lives in limbo. I will change the policy so that files for all open cases are maintained at the courthouse where the case is pending. I will also move our court system away from an antiquated paper-based system to a fully functional digital system so that files are available electronically. As discussed above, recently the County began to roll out a new case management system. The rollout has been shaky at best often causing more problems than it solves. The solutions suggested in response to questions 1 and 2 need to be implemented as soon as possible so that problems with files are reduced or eliminated. Once we move to a fully operational case management system we will need to ensure that it integrates all stakeholders in the justice system, including all municipalities in the County, the Sheriff, State’s Attorney, Public Defender, Department of Corrections and private attorneys thereby reducing or eliminating the issues of lost, stolen, incomplete and multiple files.
In some counties around the country, the clerk of the circuit court is an employee of the chief judge’s office rather than an independently elected official. Would you support such a reorganization for Cook County? Why or why not?
Although every county in Illinois elects their Clerk of the Court, the office in Cook County has become far too political and steeped in a broken and corrupt patronage system and the Clerk needs to raise substantial sums of money every four years to conduct a political campaign. The result is a system of pay-to-play politics that serves the private interests of the political elite more than the public interest.
Article VI, Section 18(b) of the Illinois Constitution leaves it to the General Assembly to either elect the Clerk of Courts or to “provide by law” that Circuit Court Clerks are appointed by the Circuit Judges. I fully support legislation in Springfield that calls for the Clerk to be appointed for a term of either 4 or 6 years by the Circuit Judges, provided that the Clerk is able to maintain a degree of autonomy to preserve the checks and balances envisioned in the Illinois Constitution. Politics and the need to raise substantial sums of money in order to run for the office should be eliminated.
What would you do to improve the office’s ethical standards and public image?
There is near universal recognition that the Clerk’s office is broken, both operationally and ethically, steeped in cronyism and riddled with inefficiencies and inadequate technology. For the operational problems to be resolved, the ethical issues must be fixed. The issues are intertwined. The Clerk’s office needs a truly independent Inspector General, with investigative and enforcement authority, to oversee issues of ethics, hiring and firing and political activity done on County time. Further, the Clerk should be appointed by the Circuit Judges, not elected, thereby eliminating the influence of politics and the need to raise campaign funds every four years.
What will you do to reassure taxpayers that patronage hiring and firing have no place in the office?
I am fully committed to changing the culture and atmosphere of the Clerk’s office, which has a long history of patronage and cronyism. I will institute a merit based hiring system and bring the office into strict compliance with Schackman standards. I will also prohibit employees from doing political work on county time, institute protocols to monitor this behavior, and aggressively discipline employees that violate policies.
Employees will no longer work in a pay-to-play environment that requires them to do political work to get or keep their jobs. The office will operate on a strict merit-based system and allow for promotions from within. The current practice of hiring unqualified individuals based upon political considerations must come to an end. Under the current system, rather than promoting experienced employees to fill vacant management positions, the Clerk often hires unqualified individuals from outside the office to fill management positions. The lack of experience in management regularly forces staff to take on their supervisor’s workload in addition to their own. That practice contributes to extremely low employee morale and adversely impacts how the office functions.
What do you see as the core function of the office?
The Clerk of the Court is essentially the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the Cook County court system, responsible for managing the administrative and courtroom operations of multiple court locations, maintaining court files for approximately 1.5 million active cases, and handling complex accounting functions for hundreds of millions of dollars, including child support, fines, fees, and forfeitures.
The primary function of the office is to serve the needs of all Court constituents — litigants, lawyers, judges, police officers, municipalities, and other Cook County and state government agencies (e.g., DOC, Sheriff, State’s Attorney, Public Defender, etc.) - in a manner that is effective and efficient so the focus is on justice instead of bureaucracy. Additionally, the Clerk of the Court must ensure that all residents of Cook County have equal access to justice regardless of their zip code or economic status.
What historical figure from Illinois, other than Abraham Lincoln (because everybody’s big on Abe), do you most admire or draw inspiration from? Please explain.
I have deep admiration for former Senator Paul Simon. As a young staffer on Capitol Hill in the 1980’s I had the privilege of getting to know Senator Simon. He started with a career in journalism, published many books and ultimately became one of Illinois’s most respected and legendary public figures. To me, he was a man of high integrity and ethics and remained intellectually dedicated to progressive values. He was a wonderfully intellectual and rounded human, who possessed ideals and tenacity that not only spurred reform on both the state and national levels but also established the lasting legacy of a political legend.
What’s your favorite TV, streaming or web-based show of all time. Why?
The television show Soap was perhaps the most impactful TV show on my life. As the first TV series to include openly gay characters, Soap, helped me in my early teens to understand what it meant to be gay. At the time, the airing of Soap created an intense political backlash from the religious right and was ultimately taken off the air, as a result. In large measure, that debate inspired me to later become active in the LGBTQ civil rights movement and helped shape the person that I am today.