Judge did right thing by banning cellphones in courtrooms

Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass comments on Judge Evans' decision to ban cellphones from Cook Country courthouses. (Posted on: April 22, 2013)

Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans kept hearing complaints from his judges about street gangs in their courtrooms using cellphones to photograph witnesses.

"They're bold and they're brash," Evans told me the other day. "They think they can do it in court just like the way they do it every day out of court."

So last week, Evans stopped it.

He banned cellphones in all the courts to deal with the problem of gangs using technology as muscle.

"It happened on a regular basis," Evans said. "And we had gone to the sheriff's (Tom Dart's) office to see what they could do about stopping the misuse of these electronic devices. I was told they do not have enough deputies to stop the abuse."

Many visitors — and presumably defendants — complained about the inconvenience of the cellphone ban. But politicians were also upset with Evans.

Dart's political feathers were especially ruffled, and I was told Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle wasn't too happy with Evans, either. Dart provides security. Preckwinkle is the de facto landlord of the court building.

The feuds and competing agendas among the three of them go back years.

But Evans said he didn't worry about that.

"I don't want to wait here in Cook County for that kind of intimidation to occur," Evans said. "We have to stop it now. We want people to feel safe when they come to court, whether they're coming as a witness or a juror or a prospective juror. We don't want them intimidated by some of these people who boldly take their (phone) cameras out and take pictures right in front of the judge, right in front of the judge, right in front of the deputy."

A spokesman for Dart disputed the idea that the sheriff wasn't willing to help Evans with the problem. But he said Dart was concerned with some aspects of the cellphone ban, such as whether the public was given enough notice. Furthermore, the Dart camp complained that Evans didn't personally and formally meet with the sheriff before announcing the policy.

Dart, a Southwest Sider, once flirted with the idea of challenging Rahm Emanuel for the mayoralty. I'm told he's now thinking about running for Illinois attorney general. That post is held by Lisa Madigan, daughter of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, the Boss of Illinois. If she moves up the food chain with her daddy's help, then Dart will try to swim upstream, too.

We contacted Preckwinkle's office and she didn't respond. I've known Preckwinkle since the 1980s, when she and Evans waged titanic battles for Evans' old 4th Ward aldermanic seat.

When Ms. Sensible Shoes doesn't respond to questions about Evans, I'm forced to interpret that as political speak for "I'm in a snit."

Politics and policy make a fine stew everywhere, but especially in Cook County.

The county jail is dangerously overcrowded. Preckwinkle doesn't want to impose additional taxes to pay for an expansion. Dart could relieve overcrowding by putting nonviolent offenders on home-monitor electronic ankle bracelets, but there's a political risk there, too.

If a "nonviolent" offender shoots somebody dead, Dart knows he'll be crucified by reporters. And judges don't want to wear the political jacket for a homicide on home monitoring.

Fair enough. Everyone has agendas. But here's the thing: I give a Moutza to agendas.

Gangs were intimidating the courts. So Evans did his job.

If someone dared whip out a phone in federal court to snap a photo of a witness or juror, make a recording or text testimony to a prospective witness outside the courtroom, that someone would be in the federal lockup in about 30 seconds.

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