Illinois Supreme Court heads online for May cases

By Rebecca Anzel
Capitol News Illinois

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois’ highest court will hear its May session’s oral arguments through videoconference.

The decision, made to follow social distancing and stay-at-home orders in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, marks the first time such technology has ever been embraced by the seven justices.

The state joins 26 others in using the technology. According to the National Center for State Courts, seven states use teleconference to conduct their business.

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“This was not built into the way courts were designed to operate and function, but the key component, I think, is courts being a service, not a place,” Bill Raftery, senior knowledge and information services analyst with the Center, said. “In other words, the idea is to administer and have access to justice, and that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to go to a courtroom if we have the technological capacity.”

The rules of decorum, which govern all court cases, will be followed, a Supreme Court spokesperson said.

Attorneys must dress professionally, as they would if presenting their case at the physical court. Justices will wear their robes and use a virtual background resembling the high court’s bench.

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A timer will be visible to all videoconference participants during arguments, a spokesperson added. When lawyers typically present cases, there is a timer at the podium that lights up in different colors to signal how much time they have left to make their arguments.

“These are extraordinary times, but what we have found is that we can keep our traditions the same,” Chief Justice Anne Burke said in a statement.

The justices are scheduled to hear 11 cases this session — four on May 12, four on May 13 and three on May 14. Members of the high court and the attorneys will use Zoom to conduct oral arguments, and members of the public can watch on the Supreme Court’s YouTube page.

Lawyers will receive training from court personnel to address any questions or concerns they may have about arguing their cases in “virtual proceedings,” according to a press release.

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“Holding oral arguments via Zoom would have sounded beyond our abilities a few months ago, but now feels almost normal,” Burke said in a statement. “The Court has found a lot of our regular work — including oral arguments — can be done remotely while still keeping people safe from COVID-19.”

A spokesperson said “the court will follow best practices for Zoom security.”

COVID-19 is forcing courts across the country to make use of technology many otherwise would not, Raftery said. The U.S. Constitution, as well as most state governing documents, mandate courts remain open and accessible so the public can maintain access to justice.

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“This wasn’t the spurred innovation courts wanted, but it might’ve been the one they needed,” he said. “This is pushing courts to do things they’ve been meaning to do for years.”

The May session might be one of the most accessible for members of the public. It is rare to watch oral arguments outside the court building in Springfield in real time.

Illinoisans’ only chance, usually, is when the justices “ride the circuit” to institutions of higher education once per year. The court did so in September when it held arguments for two cases at Lewis & Clark Community College in Godfrey.

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Audio and video of cases are posted to the court’s website a few hours after arguments are held.

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