Buried within the fifty-three-page March 18 Chicago primary sheet lies a seemingly innocuous referendum on court recording. The statement reads, “Shall the Cook County Board exercise its authority to require the Chief Judge of the Cook County Circuit Court immediately issue an Administrative Order to allow Electronic Recording in Domestic Relations courtrooms where no court reporter is present and litigants cannot afford a private court-reporter at a cost of $250-$350 per hour not including transcripts.”
This yes/no vote on the allowance of personal electronic recording devices within a court room concerns just one precinct in just one ward of Cook County, and came about through a petition that had just thirty-one signatures. These signees hailed primarily from two streets in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood on the Far South Side. Each name is a mark of the determination of a single neighborhood woman to find a solution for her personal struggles to find a voice in the Cook County divorce and custody courts.
In January 2008, Gwyendolyn Chubb filed for divorce from her allegedly abusive husband Steve Shavers, who was arrested in 2007 for domestic battery against Chubb (in addition to two other similar charges from his previous marriage). Shavers, an employee of the City of Chicago, worked as the Special Assistant to Chicago City Council President Todd Stroger during the duration of the divorce proceedings.
While attempting to appeal the resulting court decision and regain custody of her two children, Chubb was informed by a court reporter in 2008 that transcripts of the proceedings were not available. According to the Cook County Court Reporters’ office, judges are responsible for determining if a court case should go off the record. If the judge deems this necessary, the court reporter assigned to that particular case refrains from making any notes of the meeting, thus eliminating the possibility of the statements made in the courtroom being used for an appeal.
Domestic Relations is a unique division within the Cook County court system, in that it is the only division that does not provide video cameras for court cases. In a 2012 meeting with local court reporters, Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans discussed the impact of a January 2012 Illinois Supreme Court ruling allowing the use of video cameras in all state courtrooms on transparency between the courts and their constituencies:
“I wouldn’t want to prevent the public from knowing what happens in court because of the recalcitration of the judge,” said Evans. “They need to know what goes on here.”
But because Domestic Relations still prohibits cameras the transparency of domestic court cases, including divorce and custody cases, remains almost completely within the control of the judge. Although court proceedings are open to the public and anyone can sit in on a session to take notes or spectate, prohibition of any type of electronic recording device places domestic cases at the risk of obscurity more than cases in any other division of the courts.
For Chubb, this inconsistency, and its implications for families affected by difficult divorce and custody battles, necessitated action. Her concerns lie most deeply with the lack of transparency, which create potential for individuals to be shut out of their own domestic disputes. A closed courtroom with an off-the-record order from the presiding judge essentially creates a vacuum for any revelations or inaccuracies expressed during the case. Yet no accessible check exists to verify the legitimacy of a closed-door court.
Consequently, Chubb believes that enabling individuals to bring personal recording devices into the courtroom will help to resolve the inequalities that lurk behind closed courtroom doors and to facilitate later appeals cases.
Chubb’s decision to target the small Auburn Gresham community began as a consequence of failure to meet the primary referendum deadline, but has developed into a larger battle for all of Cook County’s Domestic Relations courts.
“The advice I got from [2nd Ward Alderman Bob Fioretti] was to try and test it [with the primary election for Auburn Gresham], and then use that to come back to Cook County commissioners and say, ‘Will you sponsor this?’ ” said Chubb.
If they do, and a if wider referendum takes place, questions about how families—specifically divorced parents—fare within the county court system will be raised for all of Cook County’s Domestic Relations courts, potentially illuminating the difficulties of defending oneself against imposed legal restrictions.