Illustration by Shane Tolentino
Illustration by Shane Tolentino

“He’s horrible, he’s a misogynist, he’s a racist. He needs to go.” 

These were the words one attorney used to describe Judge Raúl Vega, who served as the presiding judge of the Cook County Domestic Violence Division from 2018 to 2022. The negative judicial culture Vega fostered and the lack of sympathy he showed for survivors of domestic violence petitioning the court were among the reasons activists cited when calling upon Chief Judge Timothy Evans to remove him. Ultimately, Vega went into early retirement in January 2022 after his colleagues referred him for investigation by the Judicial Inquiry Board for misconduct, and has been replaced by Judge Judith Rice. 

And yet, navigating the Cook County Consolidated Courthouse and the byzantine judicial system within it, with its layers of overlapping city, state, and county jurisdictions, has been another challenge for petitioners. 

Housed within this enormous rust-colored building is the domestic violence division, which Judge Vega led. In contrast to most other counties, Cook County combines all domestic violence cases, both criminal and civil, into one specialized division, rather than sending them to the domestic relations and criminal divisions—two divisions that already exist.

Part of the impetus for the consolidated courthouse was Cook County’s history of  problems with overcrowding and delayed case processing at its previous two domestic violence courthouses, which had been among the busiest of such courts in the country. Constricted corridors, packed waiting areas, and sluggish elevators meant that defendants had ample opportunities to threaten or harass their partners into dropping charges.The frequency of intimidation was such that it became clear petitioners were being put at unnecessary risk of further harm just by the spatial limitations of the courthouses themselves. 

With separate waiting areas for petitioners and respondents, dedicated rooms and staff for children to be left with, and overall more spacious facilities, the consolidated courthouse seemed to remedy those long-standing issues. In addition, the creation of a dedicated domestic violence division within the Circuit Court of Cook County partly addressed the lengthy wait times and efficiency issues, improving case efficiency.

Through the years, however, concerns have been raised by petitioners and advocates alike about misogyny and racial bias in the Domestic Violence Division that goes beyond Vega, implicating not just judges but also clerks, interpreters, and county sheriffs. Others have decried the lack of 24/7 availability for judges to sign off on the Emergency Orders of Protection that petitioners sought in cases where they feared immediate intimate partner violence. In one case, a mother with her children in tow was turned away from the court at 3pm on a sweltering summer afternoon, despite this being two hours before the court’s official closing time.

Back in February 2020, at the behest of the numerous stakeholders, the Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts and the Chicago Council of Lawyers embarked on a project to understand the current problems with the beleaguered court and issue recommendations. The groups conducted interviews with dozens of employees—judges, court staff, attorneys, community services providers—and a volunteer staffed court-watching program that observed 188 domestic violence cases. The result of their work is a 91-page report filled with keen observations and offering a comprehensive description of what is going right and wrong at the courthouse, and what steps can be taken to create a better system.

One missed opportunity noted in the report is the failure to triage litigants at the door. A robust screening process could determine whether legal remedies exist to provide redress to litigants, whether there are social supports that may also serve them, or if they have attendant concerns relating to housing or immigration status. 

“What we think the court can do and what we think the court should do is integrate better with the services that are [already available],” said Elizabeth Monkus, one of the lead authors of the report and the civil court project director at Chicago Appleseed. “Problems can only be solved by creating a larger network of services that judges are empowered to share with the people who come before them.”

To remedy issues with the judicial culture in the division and reduce the chances of retraumatizing survivors, the report recommends regular, ongoing training in trauma-informed and culturally responsive practices. To that end, Rice had judges go through a two-day sensitivity training course led by the U.S. Office of Violence Against Women,and required that all new hires to the Office of the Chief Judge either have or will undergo forty hours of training relating to domestic violence.

However, not all of the people interviewed in the report were optimistic about the efficacy of a few additional training sessions. “There’s a deeper misogyny going on there, I think, and also just that intersection of misogyny with racism and class issues. So, when you have someone who is poor and Black and a woman or not, and add non-binary to that, and those are real barriers to people understanding someone else’s experience,” one lawyer interviewed in the report said. 

To make sure that problems like these don’t get out of hand in the future, the report also advises that the presiding judge be more responsive to community input. Through a standing committee composed of stakeholders, or quarterly meetings with advocates like the ones who sounded the alarm about Judge Vega and members of the public, the court could develop mechanisms for getting actionable feedback before crises arise.

Although the court has yet to move to a fully 24/7 model, it is piloting a program that offers additional hours on weeknights and weekends via remote hearings. Petitioners can electronically file Emergency Orders of Protection with the clerk of the court using forms available from Illinois Legal Aid Online and obtain a virtual hearing with a judge in after-hours sessions from 9pm to 3am Monday through Friday, and 1pm to 6pm on Saturday and Sunday.

In response to the increased volume of cases since the start of the pandemic, the Office of the Chief Judge has also made a slew of new administrative hires, and is expecting to add extra judges to the division come 2023. 

Included in these hires are staff to assist litigants with navigating what is often a difficult and confusing process. Though not attorneys, these paraprofessionals will help self-represented litigants make sure their paperwork is complete and in order, assist them with filings, and make sure they know what to expect from the legal process. The hope is that these litigant services professionals will be bilingual in either English and Spanish or English and Polish, given that these are the most common language interpretation needs.

Although the court is taking measures to reform itself, more has yet to be done in terms of transparency. One of the major limitations of the report is the lack of access to quantitative data on the demographics of litigants and the length and dispositions of their cases—information crucial to reaching an improved understanding of who is being served by the court and whether the court is operating efficiently and without bias. 

This is in part due to Illinois law, which bars administrative judicial information from being subject to Freedom of Information Act requests (court filings are, of course, public, but not through FOIA). However, according to Monkus, “There are differing opinions as to what that means. We are firmly on the side of, that does not mean court statistics are not public information.”

Individual judges have informed Monkus that they do try to keep informal track of statistics about their own cases, but this information is informal and incomplete. Thus, ultimate responsibility for the poor data collection practices lies at the door of the Clerk of the Circuit Court’s Office. “Having talked to many a programmer, you code the information going in, and you’re able to pull it out and you can share it,” Monkus told me. “That is not being done, and until someone makes the clerk do it, they’re never going to do it.”

Perhaps promisingly, the Office of the Chief Judge has told Appleseed that their data and research team is actively working with the Clerk’s Office to make criminal and civil data from domestic violence proceedings publicly accessible.

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Max Blaisdell is an educator and basketball coach based in Hyde Park. He is originally from New York City and later served in Peace Corps Morocco. He last served as the Woodlawn neighborhood captain for Best of the South Side.

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