Credit: AnneMarie Rogers

On Tuesday, October 22, more than four months after installation of court recording equipment began in all five of the eviction courtrooms at the Daley Center, green lights were shining on the mikes but no recordings were being made. It took years of lobbying by the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice and other groups to convince the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts to allocate some $370,000 to supply Chicago’s eviction courtrooms—which process about 20,000 cases every year—with microphones for creating transcripts of court hearings. Physical installation of the equipment was completed in early September, and since then, according to the chief judge’s office, software problems have gotten in the way of generating recordings. After the Reader inquired last week about when the equipment was expected to be fully functioning, the office confirmed that recordings finally began last Friday, October 25.

“We are experiencing a technical issue that is preventing the digital recordings from being automatically downloaded directly to the . . . digital recording server, where the court reporters will access the recordings to provide transcripts upon request,” Pat Milhizer, a spokesman for the Office of Chief Judge Timothy Evans, wrote in an e-mail. “We are working with the [Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts] and the Cook County Bureau of Technology to resolve this issue. In the meantime, we are in the process of developing a manual procedure to implement the digital recording system in the event that we are unable to quickly resolve the technical issue.”

While the presence of court reporters with stenography machines is standard in all criminal courtrooms in Cook County, on the civil side of the justice system many courtrooms aren’t equipped with recorders or staffed by reporters. The $370,000 allocated by the AOIC also paid for upgrades to recording equipment in traffic courtrooms and in the control room where court reporters create transcripts. Eviction courtrooms lost all reporters and recording equipment in the early 2000s due to budget cuts. Since then, unless a litigant or attorney hired their own court reporter to accompany them to a hearing, no records of the proceedings have been made as hundreds of thousands of Cook County residents faced the loss of their homes. Most eviction cases filed end with the tenant being ordered out; landlords’ chances of winning cases are bolstered by the fact that about 80 percent of them have lawyers while 80 percent of tenants do not.

On that Tuesday morning, N’Shanell Murphy was in court facing eviction by landlord Charles Muhammad for not paying the $900 monthly rent since August. Murphy, armed with a thick envelope of photographs she printed at Walgreens, was trying to explain to Judge David Skryd that she had withheld rent due to a persistent cockroach infestation in her South Chicago apartment. She’d even brought in printed screenshots of her text messages pleading with Muhammad to take care of the roaches and other problems in her unit. “I told him I wouldn’t pay the rent until he fixed the problems,” Murphy, who was in court by herself, explained to the judge. Muhammad’s lawyer, Ralanda Webb, said they were seeking an eviction order. The whole trial took less than five minutes. Skryd didn’t look at Murphy’s pictures, ordered the eviction, and said she’d have a week before the Cook County Sheriff’s Office was authorized to remove her.

South Chicago renter N'Shanell Murphy brought photos of the roach infestation in her apartment to eviction court but the judge didn't look at them.
South Chicago renter N’Shanell Murphy brought photos of the roach infestation in her apartment to eviction court but the judge didn’t look at them.Credit: Maya Dukmasova

Outside the courtroom, Murphy said that she’d lived on the second floor of the two-flat building for five years. Muhammad had purchased the building from a previous owner last February. Since then, Murphy said the cockroaches in her three-bedroom apartment have gotten so bad that they cluster around door frames, congregate in the fridge, and crawl into her three kids’ bookbags. “They’re taking roaches to school, do you know how embarrassing that is?” she said. “My youngest is depressed.” She said she’d tried to exterminate on her own and showed photo after photo of the bugs, along with pictures of rotting plumbing and bathroom faucets that require pliers to turn. Though her landlord’s lawyer had offered her a deal to pay back some of what she owed, get more time to move out, and have her eviction case sealed, Murphy thought it was wrong that she should have to pay anything at all for a unit her landlord was failing to fix. She had hoped the judge would see things from her perspective, especially since a city inspector had just been out to the property on October 10 and, per the online log of building code violations, documented rotting doors, crumbling walls, high weeds, mold, broken windows, leaks, standing water and raw sewage smells in the basement, mice and roach infestations, and missing smoke detectors.

Murphy said she’d be looking for a lawyer to help her fight the eviction order, but with only a week before it went into effect and no transcript of what had happened during the trial, it would be difficult to reverse Skryd’s decision even if she had indeed been entitled to withhold her rent under Chicago’s Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance due to the conditions in the apartment.

Lawyers practicing in eviction court and groups concerned about equal access to justice in Cook County point to cases like Murphy’s as examples of why recording devices are crucial. According to Legal Aid Chicago’s Lawrence Wood, it’s “a distressingly common occurrence” that low-income tenants approach his office for help only after an eviction order has already been issued by a judge. “We have to try to discern what happened in court through nothing more than the tenant’s version of events,” Wood said. “This task is especially difficult because many if not most low-income tenants are confused by courtroom procedures, by the legal terminology that judges and plaintiffs’ attorneys use, and by the speed with which cases are handled.” Even if attorneys are able to reconstruct what happened at trial from a defendant’s accounts, an appeal would still be based on the defendant’s affidavit, “which, unlike a trial transcript, can be dismissed as inaccurate if contested by opposing counsel or by the judge.”

One of Wood’s colleagues at Legal Aid Chicago, Michelle Gilbert, had a recent example of just such a situation involving Judge Skryd. She’d been representing a tenant whose landlord had filed for eviction claiming she owed less than $200 in rent. Gilbert filed a motion to compel the landlord to provide a full ledger proving her client owed the money. Typically the opposing party would file a motion in response and then both sides would make arguments at a hearing before the judge decided whose request to grant. Gilbert said that on the day she expected to see a response motion from the landlord, his lawyer opted simply to ask Skryd to deny her motion, and the judge did just that. He went on to issue an eviction order; when Gilbert appealed, she argued that there were a number of mistakes in the case, including Skryd’s actions regarding her motion for the ledger. “The Illinois Appellate Court denied the piece of our appeal that had to do with the motion to compel because there was no transcript,” she said. “They presumed [Skryd] did the right thing.”

The faucets in Murphy's apartment are broken and require pliers to turn. Her rent is $900 per month.
The faucets in Murphy’s apartment are broken and require pliers to turn. Her rent is $900 per month.Credit: Maya Dukmasova

Aside from the fact that a lack of transcripts makes it hard to reconstitute the events of a hearing and ensure that judges are interpreting and applying laws correctly, the absence of court reporters and recording devices makes it hard to monitor judges’ behavior too. “We have unfortunately seen some judges make very inappropriate comments, and judges are far less likely to make such comments if they know they’re being recorded,” Wood said. He added that while it’s much less of a problem than it used to be, some judges still make statements in and outside of court that give lawyers who represent tenants cause for concern. Skryd appears to be one of those judges.

On June 18, a week after the recording equipment began to be installed in eviction courtrooms, Skryd and another circuit court judge appeared at a talk hosted by the Chicago Bar Association. According to a recording and transcript of his remarks, Skryd explained to an audience of attorneys that the recording equipment was installed in eviction court after lobbying by “special interest groups” who “felt that indigents that appeared in those courtrooms, or litigants that wanted to appeal their case—they were at some kind of a disadvantage because they didn’t have transcripts of the proceedings.” The groups that lobbied for the recording equipment “have an agenda,” Skryd said. “They’ll always take the example of someone who was all of a sudden removed from their home through the eviction process and they’ll take that person and feature them in some kind of article and next thing you know judges and property owners are contributing to homelessness, that it’s the judges and the property owners that are responsible for this.”

The judge went on to characterize tenants facing eviction in a way landlords frequently do: as people who just aren’t paying rent and take advantage of the time it takes to evict them through the courts to live somewhere for free and run the unit into the ground. “People are in these places for six, eight months destroying property, have no valid claim to remain,” Skryd said.

These remarks sparked outrage among some lawyers on the tenant side of the bar, who felt that Skryd was openly admitting to a bias against tenants. (Skryd didn’t return the Reader‘s request for comment to clarify what he meant.) Some lawyers were further concerned when he later added that he planned to mute some of the mikes in his courtroom that he didn’t feel were necessary. (Mikes have been installed in front of the judge, before the judge’s bench where the litigants stand and speak during hearings, on the witness stand, and at the tables where plaintiffs and defendants’ attorneys typically sit; an additional portable microphone is available for on-the-record conversations outside the courtroom.) According to rules for use of the recording equipment shared by the chief judge’s office, “before starting any trial or hearing, all microphones must be un-muted. The judge should also make a general announcement to the public about the use of digital audio recording before starting their court call.”

Skryd made no such announcement before the start of his hearings last Tuesday. When asked by the Reader at the end of his call whether the recording equipment in his courtroom was functioning, Skryd curtly said, “I don’t have any information on that” as he shuffled paperwork on his bench. “I’m not in charge of that.” Two other eviction court judges who spoke with the Reader that day indicated they had no idea what was going on with the recording equipment. “Even though I turn on the mikes every day, I can’t tell you if it’s recording or not, I don’t know,” said Judge James Wright.

It wasn’t just tenants’ lawyers and “special interest” groups who’ve wanted to get recording equipment in eviction court. Plenty of landlords’ lawyers would also prefer to have accurate records of proceedings so they don’t have to argue about the facts of what happened later. Ralanda Webb, the attorney who represented Murphy’s landlord, said she hadn’t heard anything about the recording equipment in eviction court until the Reader called her about it last week. But now that recordings are finally being made, “I think it’s positive all the way around, because I think everybody’s interests are protected when you have a record of what happened in court,” she said. “I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by having things happen in court that aren’t recorded. I think it’s perfectly fine and keeps everybody on the up-and-up.”

While suburban Cook County eviction courtrooms still aren’t equipped with recorders or staffed by reporters, litigants who find themselves in eviction proceedings at the Daley Center can now request transcripts by calling 312-603-8400 or visiting suite 900 at 69 W. Washington.  v

This story has been updated to clarify how funding for court recording equipment was distributed.