Circuit Court Clerk touts transparency with new bill. Critics say it’s not what she promised.
By Josh McGhee | April 7, 2021
Alex Nitkin for The Daily Line
Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez speaks at a press conference at the Daley Center on Wed., April 7.
Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez has walked back a campaign pledge to give the public more access to records from her office under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
The clerk is the official record keeper for the Circuit Court and is responsible for collecting and distributing tens of millions of dollars in court fines and fees. But the agency is not subject to the state’s open record laws. That exclusion means the public has largely been kept in the dark about the operations and funding of one of the largest unified court systems in the country.
On Wednesday, Martinez touted her support of a bill, SB583, in the state Senate that would make the office subject to the Local Records Act, a state law that attorneys said doesn’t provide the same transparency as FOIA.
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“We certainly believe that the public has a right to know how public dollars are being spent and, more importantly, that they have access to that information,” Martinez said at a press conference at the Daley Center alongside the bill’s chief sponsor, State Sen. Michael Hastings (D-Frankfort). “Including the Circuit Clerk’s office in the Local Records Act makes sure that the information remains public, even after my tenure as the Clerk of the Circuit Court is over.”
But the new bill is a change of tune from the promises Martinez made as a candidate.
At a candidates’ forum in February 2020, Martinez, then an Illinois state senator, said making the Clerk of Court’s office subject to the Freedom of Information Act was “the only way we’re going to be able to really dig deep and find where the problems are at and start addressing them.”
Martinez’s predecessor, Dorothy Brown, was the subject of a federal corruption investigation, and allegations of delays and inefficiencies have long plagued the office. In 2018, the Chicago Reader reported that at least two dozen state inmates had post-conviction appeals delayed because the Circuit Court Clerk’s office couldn’t locate their case files.
At the same time, the office has shut the public out of accessing crucial information about how cases are moving through the court system, who court fines and fees impact the most by, and how the Circuit Court Clerk manages the office’s $120 million annual budget.
A campaign promise amended
Martinez wasn’t the only candidate to promise to make the Circuit Court Clerk’s office subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Still, as a sitting state senator, she had a leg up on her opponents: A week before the forum last year, she had introduced a bill that would do just that.
“For the first time in over 20 years we’re going to have an opportunity to actually bring some sunshine and transparency into an office that has been overshadowed by so much corruption, patronage, and bad management,” Martinez said at the forum, which the nonpartisan Civic Federation sponsored.
Her bill didn’t go anywhere in last year’s legislative session, which was interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
When Hastings introduced an identical bill earlier this year, the Civic Federation, which advocates for good government, supported the effort, according to a letter they sent to the bill’s sponsors. But then he introduced an amendment, supported by Martinez, that struck all references to the Freedom of Information Act and instead made the Clerk of Court’s office subject to an older, more obscure, and less robust law called the Local Records Act.
Attorney Alexandra Block said the amendment “renders [the bill] effectively toothless.” Block, who has litigated public records lawsuits on behalf of news organizations and advocated for more transparency in the court system, said the Local Records Act falls short in several respects.
Unlike the Freedom of Information Act, which allows any member of the public to request a wide range of records from public agencies, the Local Records Act only allows requesters to “inspect” documents in person and the amendment only applies to Clerk of Court records about the “obligation, receipt and use of public funds.”
“It was a statute that was written for the paper age, not the electronic age,” Block said, adding that there’s “no recourse” under the Local Records Act if public agencies don’t fulfill requests.
Patrick Hanlon, a top aide to Martinez, said the clerk remains dedicated to transparency, but that during the campaign, it became “clearly evident” that the Clerk of the Circuit Court is a “nontraditional office of the judiciary” and therefore not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
“You can’t force the judiciary to be part of FOIA,” he said.
But Block called this “utter nonsense.”
“The state legislature is fully empowered to set policy for free access to information, including for the non-judicial functions of the court system,” she said.
The amended bill passed a Senate committee last month and now heads to the full Senate for a vote.
At the press conference Wednesday, Hastings said the bill was a step forward for transparency for an office that has operated in the dark for too long and he was confident the bill would pass the Senate and the House.
“This idea is all about good government and transparency. A lot of legislators down in Springfield, they realize a need for that,” he said.
Alex Nitkin of The Daily Line contributed reporting.