As Illinois taxpayers, we have become accustomed to the term “proposed legislation” translating to “how much more is this going to cost us?” That is not the case here.
I have been doing historical research professionally for about 15 years now and many times that research sends me to Cook County Coroner’s inquest records. It could be an author, television show, or even a family member that wants to know more about how someone died in Cook County or elsewhere in the state. Many of those research requests are historical in nature and go back decades. Unfortunately, I have not had a history of great experiences requesting those public records for a number of reasons. Not the least of those problems is the cost of receiving a copy of the records themselves.
What is a Coroner’s Inquest?
Cook County abolished the elected Coroner’s system and adopted an appointed Medical Examiner’s system on December 6, 1976. In fact, Cook County is the only county in Illinois that is not under a Coroner’s system. A Coroner was an elected official who did not need any experience in the medical field and whose office conducted a public inquiry, or inquest, in order to determine a cause of death in questionable or suspicious circumstances. It was conducted in much the same way as a public trial and depending upon the complexity of the situation, multiple witnesses might have been called to testify.
The testimony can produce a treasure trove of information that is not available from any other source and is, or should be, covered under the Freedom of Information Act. Unfortunately, there is an Illinois State Statute that somehow exempts these records and, by state statute, the cost of these records is $5 per page.
In the case of one 1956 murder case where I was assisting a family with receiving information about the murder of their sisters, the cost of receiving the transcript would have been in excess of $1,200.00 which was more than the family could afford.
Now all of this may change due to the work of a wonderful gentleman named Scott Burgh.
Scott contacted me last year when he first started this process due to his and others’ frustrations with this system. He retired as the Chief Law Librarian at the City of Chicago Department of Law in 2017 after 28 years and had worked in libraries for over 36 years. He has an avid interest in history and original research, worked for the Illinois General Assembly and currently serves as Advocacy Chair for the Chicago Genealogical Society.
Enter House Bill 4210
HB4210, also known as The Coroner Fees-Inquest and Waiver Bill, is sponsored by Representatives La Shawn K. Ford and Will Guzzardi .
In short, the bill provides that the cost of an entire transcript of sworn testimony for a case over 20 years old would be $15.00. The document would be stamped with “For Genealogical or Research Purposes Only”. In this scenario it would have saved the family I was working with about $1,185.00 but more importantly, they would have more information about the death of their sisters. The bill also raises the fee of a human body cremation permit from $50 to $100.
This would be a huge win for the ideals of open government records and public access.
What can I do to help?
Your support as an Illinois resident is needed. HB 4210 is scheduled for a committee hearing this week on Thursday, February 20, 2020.
As an Illinois resident, you can help by submitting a witness slip in support of the bill and get everyone else to do the same.
It is easy to do online at the link below. And only takes a minute. Simply enter your information, check as a PROPONENT and at the end of the witness slip, you can check "Record of Appearance Only." If the form asks for a firm name you can simply reply NONE or SELF.
THIS MUST BE DONE BY FEBRUARY 20th.
Let’s all work together for the sake of government record transparency and for the access to public records that we as citizens and taxpayers should have access to.
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