CHICAGO - Former Ald. Ricardo Munoz was supposed to have an in-person sentencing hearing Wednesday at Chicago's federal courthouse, but instead the parties found themselves back on the telephone discussing what to do in light of the resurging COVID-19 pandemic.
U.S. District Judge John Kness said during the brief hearing that "due to the very fluid public health circumstances" surrounding the omicron variant, he didn't think it would be prudent to go forward with a hearing at the courthouse.
Munoz's lawyer, law professor Richard Kling, agreed, saying his office at the Chicago-Kent College of Law has been on strict pandemic-related lockdown for several weeks, leaving him without access to information and computer equipment he needs to go forward.
"I'm sure you all know it's going to be very hard to predict when circumstances are going to be such that we'll all be comfortable having an in-person hearing," Kness said, setting a status date for mid-February.
It was a flashback to earlier stages of the pandemic, when both the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse and Leighton Criminal Court Building endured closures and months of hearings conducted by phone and videoconferencing.
The sentencing for Munoz, who pleaded guilty to spending campaign cash on personal items, was the highest-profile cancellation so far due to the latest COVID-19 wave at either Chicago courthouse. Both, like many other government buildings, remain open for business despite seeing a rash of visitors and employees test positive for the virus in recent weeks.
Many judges in Cook County have been attempting to transition away from video conferenced court hearings; some at the Leighton Criminal Court Building have been operating exclusively in-person for months. But most are operating in a hybrid fashion, with some hearings conducted on Zoom and others in the courtroom.
According to a spokeswoman for Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans' office, 45 judges have tested positive for COVID-19 throughout the pandemic - nine of them this week.
At the Dirksen courthouse, meanwhile, at least 44 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 after being in the courthouse since mid-December, according to letters sent to courthouse employees by U.S. District Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer.
"Someday I will have no positive test results to report," Pallmeyer wrote in a recent letter Tuesday, which reported four new cases. "Today is not that day."
In a statement to the Tribune, Thomas Bruton, the clerk for the Northern District of Illinois, said that while federal court work continues, officials are "closely monitoring public health information and adhering firmly to safety protocols."
"Although we report regularly on persons who have tested positive in the building, so far we are aware of no instances of transmission of the virus within the courthouse," Bruton wrote. "We will, however, continue to monitor the situation, and take steps necessary to protect our staff and the public."
Impact on jails
The virus is also on the rise at Metropolitan Correctional Center on West Van Buren Street, where many federal pretrial detainees are held. Earlier this week, 109 prisoners - about 18% of the total population - were currently testing positive, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons website. That number had dropped to 73 prisoners as the week drew to a close. No deaths had been reported.
Meanwhile, at the Cook County Jail on the Southwest Side, 404 people in custody were positive for COVID-19 as of Wednesday, according to Sheriff Tom Dart's office. That accounts for about 7 percent of detainees. In addition, 478 sheriff's office employees, a category that includes correctional officers, courthouse security deputies and more, were positive as of Wednesday.
The federal jail outbreak was already having an impact on court calls. On Thursday, for example, a hearing for Adel Daoud, the Hillside man convicted of trying to blow up a Loop bar, was canceled after U.S. Judge John Lee wrote in a minute order he'd been "informed that the MCC has imposed additional restrictions due to the recent surge in COVID infections."
The numbers reflect the overall situation with the omicron surge across the state, with single-day positive tests and hospitalizations reaching the highest levels since the pandemic began nearly two years ago.
Chicago's chief medical officer, Dr. Allison Arwady, has said she hopes the omicron surge will peak in Chicago by the end of January, but added that it's impossible to tell for sure at this point.
Big trials looming
The latest pandemic surge comes as several high-profile, in-person jury trials are set to begin at the Dirksen courthouse, including the trials of sitting Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson on Feb. 1, and state Sen. Thomas Cullerton on Feb. 22.
Cullerton, a Democrat from Villa Park, faces indictment on embezzlement charges alleging he pocketed almost $275,000 in salary and benefits from the Teamsters union despite doing little or no work.
Thompson, nephew and grandson to two mayors, is charged with tax offenses stemming from the collapse of a bank in the Daleys' Bridgeport neighborhood.
So far, the courthouse is still continuing to host jury trials, operating under the same protocols set in place in April when trials resumed after a six-month hiatus.
The precautions include a testing program that requires jurors, lawyers and other trial participants to take a saliva-based COVID-19 test up to two times a week for the duration of any trial. Others expected to participate in a trial or other in-person hearing for more than two days are also required to submit to testing.
Social distancing and mask-wearing has been constant at the courthouse. To help alleviate overcrowding, only one trial can start on any given day, and only one trial per floor of the high-rise building can proceed at a time.
Also, reporters and spectators are not allowed into the trial courtrooms themselves, watching instead from an overflow room with a live video feed.
Bruton said the Northern District of Illinois has been one of the most successful in the country in safely holding jury trials amid the ongoing health crisis.
"With those protocols in place, we have been able to select more than 62 juries since the beginning of the pandemic," Bruton said. "Since April 2021, there have been only five jurors who have tested positive out of 53 juries, and we have not had to declare any mistrials. "
He said the district's 2,197 trial hours in 2021 were second only to the Southern District of New York, which logged 3,205.
The courthouse also hosted a free COVID-19 booster clinic in the lobby before Christmas that was open to the public and administered 200 to 400 shots a day, Bruton said.
Cook County criminal jury trials started back up in March after a yearlong pause, and Leighton saw about one per week throughout May and June, according to Chief Judge Evans' office. While mask-wearing is strictly enforced in the courthouses, jurors are not tested for COVID-19 at Leighton like their counterparts in federal court.
Reduced social-distancing requirements expanded capacity for jury trials significantly over the summer, and dozens of jury trials were held at Leighton last year. Dozens of others were slated for jury trials that were postponed, ended in pleas, or went to a bench trial instead, according to Evans' office.
But Leighton was host to a number of high-profile jury trials - like those of actor Jussie Smollett on charges of falsely reporting a hate crime attack and the murder trial of Wyndham Lathem - as well as complex trials like a double homicide in Edgewater linked to a prolifically violent drug and robbery crew.
Case backlog remains
The extensive courthouse slowdowns created a heavy backlog of felony cases last year - one that has shrunk significantly, but not disappeared, according to numbers from Cook County State's Attorney's Office.
Prosecutors began 2022 with roughly 25,900 to 32,200 felony cases pending, according to the office. That number is much smaller compared to what the office characterizes as the backlog's peak, March 2021, when there were between 30,000 and 36,000 felonies pending, officials said.
In February 2020, the last full month of regular court operations, there were about 21,000 pending cases, the office said. That means prosecutors are still facing a caseload 23 to 53 percent higher than the prepandemic status quo.
State's Attorney Kim Foxx said last year that the office might have to drop cases en masse to clear out the backlog. That wave of dismissals never materialized, according to the office's data.
In fact, prosecutors dropped fewer cases in 2021 than they did in 2019. Of all the felony cases that concluded last year, about 33 percent ended in a dismissal, compared to 39 percent in 2019. Last year's share of dismissals is closer to 2018, when 30 percent of resolved cases ended in dropped charges.
And an anticipated flood of trial demands once the speedy-trial clock started ticking again did not materialize either, according to a statement from the prosecutors' office.
"Currently, the (Cook County State's Attorney's Office) is resolving cases at pre-COVID levels," the statement read. "Although it did not come to fruition, in anticipation of a rush of trial demands upon the lifting of the Speedy Trial toll on October 1st, our (assistant state's attorneys) worked diligently to resolve cases. We are back to pre-COVID levels due to the ASAs who worked through these difficult circumstances to resolve cases and work towards justice."
At the federal courthouse, a standing order updated by Pallmeyer in December allows for most criminal proceedings other than jury trials - including initial appearances and bond hearings, arraignments, guilty pleas and sentencings - to proceed by video or teleconference as long as the parties agree.
That order is set to expire April 4.
Meanwhile, those who demand an in-person hearing, such as ex-alderman Munoz, could be forced to wait it out.
"I hope you all stay safe and healthy," Judge Kness told the parties on Wednesday before signing off. "We will all get through these challenges ... and get to a hearing in due course."