Will tough primary fight push Clerk Brown to speed up needed court reforms?

Will tough primary fight push Clerk Brown to speed up needed court reforms?

Despite claims that her office is as up-to-date as Rod Blagojevich's beaver-style hairdo, Dorothy Brown easily won the Democratic nomination for Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court on Tuesday night.

She defeated her challenger, 22nd Ward Alderman Ricardo Muñoz, by grabbing nearly 67 percent of the vote.

Although Brown won big, the road to victory wasn't as smooth as it has been in past elections.

The clerk of the circuit court's race usually garners much less attention than it got this time around.

Early on, though, Muñoz made it clear that he was in the race because the office, under Brown, is rife with ineptitude and operates with decades-old technology.

Brown later responded to Muñoz's criticism by noting that he doesn't even have a website.

But journalists, activists and other political candidates have taken Muñoz's point and have run with it.

Appellate Judge Aurelia Pucinski, who preceded Brown as clerk of the circuit court and ran unsuccessfully for the Illinois Supreme Court this year, echoed Muñoz's sentiments when she told the Chicago Sun-Times Brown had "made a mess" of the office.

Brown fired back by claiming she has been cleaning up after Pucinski--for 12 years.

Pucinski, who supported Muñoz in the race, claimed that litigants commonly appear before her with files from Brown's offices that are frequently missing vital documents.

“It shows that the office is not functioning well at the trial level, at the appellate level and for the litigants who are then wasting a lot of time. And it’s costing them money because their attorney shows up, oops, have to wait. Have to go back. Come back again," Pucinski told the Sun-Times.

This was another issue in the race: The fact that obtaining court documents and records often requires a trip to the county's courthouses.

Last week, the Illinois Open Government Data Initiative asked both Muñoz and Brown to sign a pledge agreeing to digitize court data.

Muñoz signed the pledge and attended the March 16 press conference the group held to address the initiative. Brown did neither, but said her PR team informed event organizer Paul Baker that she was "outraged" that she hadn't been made aware of the event.

According to Baker, he had corresponded numerous times with Brown's camp through email and by phone to discuss the initiative.

The event was attended and organized by folks who have worked with the city to disclose some information on city hall lobbyists.

What's more, Baker said Open Government was pushing the pledge in large part because digitized court data would make it easy for activists, like Baker, to ensure that the city's abandoned buildings ordinance is being adhered to.

In a press release, Baker explained that, with that court data, activists and residents could "put together responses to the housing crisis which is rapidly degrading quality of life and lowering property values in Chicago and the municipalities in [Cook County]."

"We can easily see who's responsible for updating a house that's [in disrepair]," Baker told The Chicago Reporter.

Presently, much of that information is only available in paper form and it often takes a long time for documents to be prepared.

From time to time, there's also the issue of a service fee for the work Brown's office claims employees put into locating and organizing large data requests.

Recently, the Reporter was told it would have to cough up $7,000 for a large amount of criminal court records. Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans waived that fee, but the Reporter is now raising $1,500 for another series of investigations it is doing.

The Chicago Reader's Mick Dumke received a similar response to a request for court data on unlawful gun use between 2009 and 2010. He was told the documents would cost $1,450 to track down.  His request is still in limbo.

There's also the issue of e-filing court documents, something Brown's office hasn't completely rolled out yet. As Crains' political blogger Greg Hinz noted last week, this constantly draws the ire of many attorneys.

Brown often fends off criticism by pointing to a number of technological advancements she has implemented since being elected in 2000.

Brown's spokeswoman, Enza Raineri, emailed the Reporter a PowerPoint list with bullet points of Brown's year-by-year technological accomplishments, from 2001-2011.

The list is long and rife with jargon, but that's par for the course when it comes to technology. Here are a handful of technological advancements Brown has implemented:

  • "Law Division Electronic Docket Screen Redesign" in 2003
  •  "Full Electronic Docket Search" in 2004
  • "Upgraded Windows 2000 Servers to Windows 2003" in 2007.
  • "Implemented a new employee photo ID system" in 2007
  • "Replaced Criminal Division's courtroom printers with HP 3005dn printers" in 2008

The full docket search, for example, allows the public to search for court cases, but in order to see the actual court files, an inquirer has to take a trip to any number of the county's courthouses. And there's no guarantee that the document one is looking for will be readily available.

Raineri said Brown's office is currently digitizing about 17,000 documents a day, and that some 50 million have already been scanned.

A digitized court database should be finished by December 2012, Raineri said, echoing a promise Brown made, after winning re-election Tuesday.

Stay tuned.

Clarification: The Chicago Reporter initially reported that Clerk Brown won a fourth term in office. Technically, she has not won another term since the office of Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court will be on ballot in the November general election, regardless of whether Brown has an opponent. Currently she does not have one. 

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  • After 12 years so little has been done it will be a big surprise if she makes any headway. It's still a wonder how she was able to win this election, where her support came from, and why she got such a high vote count.

    Clearly the better candidate lost.

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