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Rep. Curtis Tarver

Illinois state Rep. Curtis J. Tarver II, D-Chicago, left, talks with other legislators on Friday, May 22, 2020. Tarver has proposed a bill that would make the judiciary subject to open records laws on some matters.

Ted Schurter

A Democratic state lawmaker proposes shining more light on the judicial branch

The courts in Illinois are allowed to operate largely outside the prying eyes of the press and public because the state’s Freedom of Information Act does not apply to them.

The judicial branch can deny access to the same sorts of records that other local and state government officials are legally obligated to release upon request.

But a bill introduced last month in Springfield would change that.

The bill’s sponsor is Democratic state Rep. Curtis Tarver II of Chicago.

He told WBEZ it was long past time to shine more sunlight on the inner workings of court systems across Illinois.

“With three co-equal branches of government, there should be equal transparency – as much transparency as possible for the public,” Tarver said.

The proposal would amend the Freedom of Information Act so it covers “judicial bodies of the State,” records show.

But it would exempt from disclosure “all records of a judicial body of this State related to court cases and court decision making.”

Tarver said his goal was to let the public know more about matters that are “administrative in nature and not subject to judicial discretion.”

“With the other branches of government, as it relates to administrative and personnel matters, there are things that are subject to FOIA and transparency for the public,” Tarver said. “This would just bring the judiciary in line with that, while still protecting the records that should be protected.”

A hearing on Tarver’s bill, which he introduced on Jan. 27, is scheduled in the Illinois House Executive Committee at 10 a.m. Wednesday in Springfield.

The chief judge of the Cook County Circuit Court, Timothy Evans, did not reply to a request for comment on the proposal.

In December, in response to a request from WBEZ, Evans’ office declined to provide information on employee vaccinations against the coronavirus – the sort of data that can be obtained from other government employers through FOIA requests.

As the administrative overseer of the circuit court system, the chief judge’s office has a payroll of about 400 judges and roughly 2,600 other employees, including 574 workers at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.

The clerk of the Circuit Court, Iris Martinez, also did not reply to requests for comment on Tarver’s proposal.

Martinez was elected on a promise to make her office subject to FOIA but did an about-face and opposed that notion after taking office, according to Injustice Watch, a nonprofit organization that monitors the justice system in Illinois.

The Better Government Association supports opening the judicial branch to FOIA and plans to meet with Tarver, said Bryan Zarou, the BGA’s policy director.

“We think there is a lot of information, like official communications, juvenile detention operations and budget and staffing information, that we are not privy to currently and that could be useful to the public,” Zarou said.

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him on Twitter @dmihalopoulos.

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