Trying Times At Daley Center

Find a specific court case and make photocopies of the entire file, my editor requested last week.It was a seemingly simple assignment, but if you’ve ever tried to navigate the Cook County Circuit Court Clerk’s offices you’d know that sometimes the most ordinary task can eat up hours of time – and seriously test patience.

Daley Plaza / Photo by © Jeremy Atherton, 2006 (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Find a specific court case and make photocopies of the entire file, my editor requested last week.

It was a seemingly simple assignment, but if you’ve ever tried to navigate the Cook County Circuit Court Clerk’s offices you’d know that sometimes the most ordinary task can eat up hours of time – and seriously test patience.

The government agency is the bureaucracy for the courts; it’s the repository for lawsuits and other court documents, and handles more than 1.2 million new cases a year. It’s headed by an elected official, Dorothy Brown.

It’s well known that the agency’s infrastructure is gravely impaired by an antiquated filing system and, let’s just say, not the most efficient workers.

Now, in the age of smart phones and other high-tech gadgets, we’ve become accustomed to easy and immediate access to information. Stepping into the courthouse at 50 W. Washington, however, feels like a time warp.

To illustrate your public dollars at work, here’s a brief snapshot of one recent afternoon on the eighth floor of the Richard J. Daley Center.

It began at the public access terminal, where a simple computer search can be a headache in the making.

"Do you know how to go back a page?" asked a guy sitting at the screen next to me.

"Um, is it F4?" I offered.

He tried punching different keys to get to the previous window – a move that’s not possible here with, you know, a mouse and a back button.

"Or wait, maybe it’s F3," I told him.

No instructions were in sight.

"Jeez, I haven’t seen a program like this since college. No, more like high school," he grumbled.

I haven’t seen a program like that ever.

Using the F7 and F8 keys to scroll up and down (also not possible with the mouse), I located my case number and had a worker pull the file. While photocopying documents, I realized the case contained only the original petition and no other entries. A second check of the docket showed a host of activity, so I asked an employee about the missing records.

"How often are the case files updated?"

"Oh that? That can take a reaaaaally long time," he said, pointing me back to the public access terminal.

In this case, the remaining documents were accessible on the computer. But electronic files are not always available. I considered myself lucky and scanned through the docket again.

"Hey, how do I start a search?" It was another confused citizen.

"I don’t think it works on that computer," the man next to him responded.

Eventually, I finished printing my files and went to the cashier to collect the records.

"How many did you print?" the cashier asked.

"I’m not sure, somewhere between 100 to 200," I said.

"Hundreds?! We’re only supposed to print a couple . . . cuz of the long lines."

No one was behind me at the time.

After discussing the issue with her boss, the woman went ahead and printed the papers but warned me:

"Our printer is very slow. It’s going to take a looong time."

"Like how long? Ten minutes?" I asked.

"Ummm . . ."

"30 minutes?"

"Yeah, probably 30 minutes. But don’t worry, I’ll come flag you when it’s done."

About an hour passed with no word from the employee, so I returned to the counter to check on the status.

"Oh yeah, it’s ready," said another woman, directing me back to the line.

"Do I have to get in line again?"

"Yes."

When it’s my turn at the counter, I was told I would have to go through the thick stack of documents and remove all the blank pieces of paper that are mixed into the pile. It wasn’t until after I had already finished when I noticed: the package wasn’t even my case.

Thankfully, she returned quickly with the right file.

"But here’s the bad news," she added. "You’re going to have to count the number of pages. We’ll go with the honor system, I trust you."

Two hundred seventeen page-turns later, I pulled out my credit card and thought, surely, I must be on the home stretch by now.

"Oooo, you’re going to use a credit card?" the woman asked.

"Yeah, is that a problem?"

"It’s just that our credit card machine is reaaaaally slow."

Oh brother, here we go again, I thought.

All in all, the whole affair endured for more than three hours. It’s a wonder how that place functions at all.

Speaking of slow and inefficient government agencies, shortly after leaving the Daley Center that day, I headed north via a Chicago Transit Authority "express" bus. My seven-mile commute lasted nearly two hours.

But we’ll save CTA gripes for another time.

This blog post was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Katie Drews. She can be reached at (312) 821-9027 or kdrews@bettergov.org.