Official Statement on Dorothy Brown’s proposed fee hikes From Rick Munoz Democrat for Cook County Court Clerk
For Immediate Release: November 14, 2011
For more info: Andrew Sharp, 773/447-1763
Defending her budget before Cook County lawmakers last week, Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown boasted she has a group of people in her office that do nothing but look for ways to bring in new revenue. She then proceeded to rattle off a long list of fees she hopes to increase on local taxpayers, businesses, lawyers – and even on the indigent. This approach is wrongheaded and symbolic of an office with a reputation for corruption and inefficiency.
The new fees proposed by Clerk Brown would make it more expensive for businesses to operate in Cook County, which is precisely the wrong thing to do as our civic leaders work to convince new companies to move here. The current filing fee to initiate a civil case in Cook County is already $303. Brown proposed adding a $1 processing fee to every document filed in the case subsequently, including so called “no fee filings.”
With more than 15 million case activities logged each year, many document submissions, the amount of money involved for local law firms and the businesses they serve is potentially enormous. When County Commissioners complained about the $1 increase, Brown started negotiating, “How about 50 cents?” she offered.
Even more troubling are the new fees law firms are about to face for electronic filing. Cook County is about 5 years behind DuPage County and 16 years behind the federal government when it comes to allowing legal documents to be conveniently filed online. As a result, of all the hundreds of thousands of court cases filed in Cook County this year, only 2,334 of them were filed electronically, according to Brown.
Thanks to an overly generous contract Brown’s Office awarded for electronic filing, it will soon cost Cook County users $4.95 every time they file a document (plus an additional 4% convenience fee if they use a credit card.) Fully one third of that money will leave the state and go to Alabama to a company called Online Systems. Fortunately, the Supreme Court has put the brakes on the electronic filing deal – at least for the time being.
Even more disturbing than the new fees Brown proposed for the business and legal community is the money she wants to raise from the indigent. Not only did she call for tacking on a $5 court users fee for every one who uses the court system – regardless of whether they want to use the system or were unfortunate enough to have been caught up in a foreclosure, for example.
Clerk Brown then proposed requiring everyone who claims to be too poor to pay their court fees to submit documentation proving their indigence. Should that person prove indigent but then win a court settlement, Brown says her office would like a cut of that settlement. Simply put, these new fees raise very real concerns about access to justice for all people.
Nor is the answer to tight budget times to cut service, as Clerk Brown has threatened to do. She told the Commissioners she considers her office already understaffed and would have to reduce service to meet lower budget targets. This argument does not hold up. Despite the fact the volume of court cases in Cook County have dropped by 28 percent in recent years, staffing is down only 12 percent.
After a decade of free spending, Court Clerk Brown is now under tremendous pressure from President Toni Preckwinkle to cut her office down to a size taxpayers can sustain. President Preckwinkle proposed a 7.4 percent cut in spending, more than $1.5 million less than Brown requested. Brown now has until November 16 to explain to the Budget Committee how she will meet this lower target. The answer should not be an increase in fees or a cut in service.
It’s time for Dorothy Brown to make the tough budget decisions these times require instead of pushing her problems onto someone else. Leadership begins by example. Brown could start demonstrating her commitment to fiscal discipline by getting rid of her taxpayer funded security detail, car and driver.