By Tim Hecke
Managing Partner, CWBChicago
CHICAGO — My plans for September 17 were not exciting. I headed to the Leighton Criminal Courthouse at 26th and California to monitor Central Bond Court, the first stop for anyone charged with a felony in Cook County. I went there to take notes about interesting cases on the last day of the cash bail system in Illinois. No other reporters showed up.
Since joining CWBChicago, I’ve taken bond court notes in person at least 50 times. I did it remotely more than 1,000 times during COVID when hearings were streamed on YouTube.
But something highly unusual happened about two hours into the September 17 court call.
As I sat in my favorite spot in the last row of the gallery, reviewing my notes between cases, Cook County Associate Judge Maryam Ahmad stood up from her seat.
“Are you reading something, sir?” she asked.
When I looked up, she was obviously talking to me.
Holding my notepad and pen overhead so she could see I was taking notes, Ahmad warned me that she did not allow “reading or writing” while court was in session.
To say that’s surprising would be an understatement.
Chief Judge Timothy Evans signed an administrative order in 2014 that explicitly allows notetaking in the county’s courtrooms. He issued the order after sheriff’s deputies ordered a law school professor to stop taking notes during Central Bond Court in the very same courtroom where I was sitting. By all accounts, the deputies acted on their own, not under the orders of the judge, Laura Sullivan.
Professor Samuel V. Jones wrote a letter to the Tribune about his experience. And the paper’s editorial board published its own thoughts, closing the column with these words for the judge: “The courtroom does not belong to you. It belongs to the people. You might want to write that down.”
Nearly 20 years ago, a different law school professor, Jona Goldschmidt, sued Cook County Judge Gloria Coco, supervising judge of the domestic violence section, over her “no writing” policy
For years, Goldschmidt sent his students to observe various court proceedings and report back. Over the years, he kept hearing that Judge Coco wouldn’t let the students take notes. So he went there in person, started taking notes, and got kicked out.
“During settlement negotiations, I learned from the federal magistrate that [Judge Coco] told him her concern was the media/press,” Goldschmidt said in an email Friday. “She was scared they would write about her rulings. I and my students got caught up in her paranoia. This may be the motivation of judges that still enforce a no-note-taking rule.”
But back to my story.
I obeyed Ahmad’s order and stopped writing. While she heard another case, I stared at the floor, thinking about what I should do. Then she stopped the proceedings again.
A moment later, the sheriff’s deputy who had spent the day standing behind defendants as Ahmad heard their cases, presumably to keep them from bolting out the courtroom door, was standing directly in front of me.
“Him?” the deputy bellowed toward the bench. “Do you want him out? Out?”
And, with that, he ordered me to my feet and escorted me to the exit.
As I passed the threshold of the courtroom’s double doors, the deputy stopped me and directed me to stand in the well of the courtroom directly before the bench.
Ahmad went off the record and asked me to explain myself. I told her I was a journalist preparing to write a story about the final bond court session under cash bail.
She claimed that journalists usually wear their credentials “so we know who they are.” But the only reference to media credentials in the court’s general orders says credentials must be presented upon request during “extended media coverage” events, like when a judge allows cameras in a courtroom.
Ahmad went on to explain why she doesn’t allow people to take notes in her courtroom: because they might write down information about the defendants. That’s nonsense, of course. Anyone who wants information about defendants can print out page after page of their personal data from the clerk’s computer system upstairs.
The judge never asked to see my media credentials, which were in my pocket, but she did allow me to return to my seat and continue notetaking for the remainder of the call.
I assume she did that because I said I was with the media.
But, you see, journalists have no greater right to take notes in court than you or anyone else.
“The right of the press to access court proceedings is derivative of the public’s right, and inside the courthouse, the press has no greater rights than those of the general public,” U.S. District Judge Elaine Bucklo wrote in Goldschmidt v. Coco.
In other words, people have the right to take notes in court. And the reason journalists can take notes in court is because they are people, not because they are journalists.
“Clearly, judges and deputies have not been instructed that notetaking, talking in hushed tones to others, and reading are First Amendment rights,” Goldschmidt said Friday. “Judges continue to enforce these prohibitions based on their ‘this is MY courtroom’ attitude.”
“As Bucklo stated … students from high school on are instructed to take notes as part of their learning experience,” Goldschmidt continued. “So, students, ‘court watchers,’ and members of the public should be able to record the parts of the proceedings of interest to them. Enforcing the prohibition in order to ‘protect’ defendants, witnesses, judges, or whoever is ludicrous, especially in this day and age where many states are starting to televise court proceedings. There is no evidence that notetaking harms anyone, and it is an educational exercise.”
The morning after Ahmad revealed her “no writing” policy to me, I emailed the office of Chief Judge Evans to report the incident and to ask a few questions for this column:
- Is Chief Judge Evans’ 2014 order still in effect?
- Who, if anyone, is allowed to inconspicuously take written notes while observing Cook County court proceedings?
- If notetaking is permitted, how are Judge Ahmad’s actions explained?
- If notetaking is permitted, what steps are being taken to ensure that no citizen, whether a professional journalist or not, is faced with a situation like the one I experienced yesterday?
- If notetaking is not permitted: Why is it not permitted? How does such a rule contribute to open, transparent courtrooms? Why was the 2014 rule reversed? When?
- Could you provide Judge Ahmad’s work email address? I would like to contact her directly regarding the story.
As of this morning, two full weeks after I sent the email, Evan’s office has not answered any of those questions. Not one.
Curiously, though, about an hour after his office acknowledged receipt of my email, someone named Maryam Ahmad called my phone and hung up after one ring. Whoever it was did not leave a voicemail.
While Evans’ office did not provide Ahmad’s email address, I got it from someone else and sent her a message on Thursday. I told her that I planned to write about what happened on September 17. I asked a few questions and invited her input. She did not reply.
So, at this point, I can only conclude that Cook County judges are allowed to pick and choose who gets to take notes in their courtrooms, and the chief judge is not concerned about it.
Ahmad is probably not the only Cook County judge who, despite Evans’ 2014 order, prohibits notetaking.
“I’m retired now,” Goldschmidt told me, “but up through 2020, I was still getting reports from students visiting branch as well as felony courts informing me of the enforcement of the prohibition—a ‘wack-a-mole’ situation.”
“Students continued to inform me of courts in which deputies told them not to talk, take notes, or read. I tested these complaints again by taking notes and reading in a branch court. I was again removed from the court.”
By the way, if you ever have an opportunity to attend a U.S. Supreme Court session, feel free to take notes in the gallery. They’re totally fine with it, even if Judge Ahmad isn’t.