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Excerpted From: Maria Hawilo, Kat Albrecht, Meredith Martin Rountree and Thomas Geraghty, How Culture Impacts Courtrooms: An Empirical Study of Alienation and Detachment in the Cook County Court System, 112 Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 171 (Spring, 2022) (144 Footnotes) (Full Document)

HawiloAlbrechtRountreeAndGeraghtyIt's raining as a new day begins at Chicago's main felony courthouse. As lawyers, police, and court personnel stride swiftly through the front doors and a metal detector's perfunctory check, others line up outside, patiently waiting in the rain and enduring the security officers' shouted orders to stay in line. The water drips onto a soaked mat at the entrance. The people waiting in line will eventually make their way through the doors and metal detector, where they will be reminded that cell phones cannot be brought into the courthouse and must be checked into a locker by the entrance. These people are the outsiders, the bystanders to the criminal legal system. A status the courthouse will continuously underscore.

Once inside, these outsiders will head past the designated area for press conferences, through a series of grand hallways toward a bank of elevators. Here, they will wait in groups to get onto the elevator that will take them to one of the thirty-three courtrooms. By now, it is likely about 9:00 or 9:30 in the morning. Many judges order people to appear by 9:00, and so many do. But unless they are going to a courtroom run by one of the few judges who starts at 8:30 or 9:00, they will usually find that the courtroom to which they must report is locked. So, they fill the areas around the courtroom doors, waiting for them to open. At about 10:00, the courtrooms finally open and visitors file into the gallery. The judge is likely not yet on the bench, though the lawyers--at least some lawyers--are probably present. Depending on the time of day, the presence of the lawyers is uneven. The court reporter, the courtroom clerk, the Assistant Public Defenders, and the Assistant State's Attorneys are generally assigned to particular courtrooms, and in some courtrooms, a sense of a “company break room” is hard to miss.

A clerk named Diane calls the white female court reporter “Brainiac” in an affectionate manner and asks her what she remembers from last week. Courtroom 305 had a murder jury come out with a verdict this past Monday. They then get to talking about their lives outside of work, like children's clothing swaps. Later, an Assistant District Attorney enters the courtroom, fresh from her vacation. She starts telling the courtroom staff about her dogs and their training. Then, several lawyers start to joke with her and look at pictures and videos of the dogs on her phone.

The judge comes onto the bench at around 10:00. Suddenly, things are happening quite fast. While there are a lot of cases called, the proceedings in each are generally very short. The docket call is often punctuated by recesses, stretches of five to thirty minutes when the judge steps off the bench. The morning call is over anytime from about noon to 2:00 in the afternoon, and for most judges, this is the end of the court day. Trials certainly demand more time, but in Cook County, as elsewhere, trials represent only a fraction of the case dispositions. Occasionally, a judge explicitly references courtroom work norms. One judge commented to his clerk and the deputies, “Can you believe that one guy who wanted the 22 of November? [ ... ] No, we won't be here. That's two days before Thanksgiving,” he scoffs.

On the whole, Cook County felony court judges spend most of their time in court holding hearings that take less than two minutes, but which require the participants, especially the lay participants, to spend hours waiting in the courtroom for their case to be called, or for their loved one to appear, or waiting to confront the person who has harmed them.

This raises a significant question: what impact do these experiences with the criminal legal system have on people--particularly, the people who are outside the courtroom system?


Each year, thousands of people walk through the George N. Leighton Criminal Courthouse's doors where most of Cook County's felony cases are adjudicated. Colloquially known as “26th and Cal,” the courthouse is located six miles from Chicago's downtown Loop. Its physical distance from the city's skyscrapers, government offices, museums, and restaurants serves as a reminder of its distance from the seat of Chicago's money and power.

To get to the courthouse via public transportation from downtown Chicago is to resign oneself to nearly an hour-long commute. For those who drive, parking is a challenge. Once at the courthouse, lawyers, police, and court personnel pass swiftly through the entrance. By contrast, defendants, witnesses, and family members line up outside to hurry up and wait. Most of those who are waiting are Black or LatinX. They are the outsiders, the ones who are not formal actors in the criminal legal system, but whose lives are impacted by it in ways large and small.

Though the Article focuses on Cook County criminal courts, the need to understand courtroom culture extends beyond any single court system. Cook County courts might be unique in their caseloads, but they are not entirely unique in their problems nor in the role they play in the lives of the community and courtroom workers. Courts are a central feature of the American criminal system. To be viewed as legitimate by their constituents, courts must, this Article argues, be viewed as fair and capable of delivering justice in an organized, coherent, transparent, and predictable way.

This Article uses Cook County as a case study to illuminate common problems within criminal courthouses. This Article then specifically examines how Cook County felony courts operate--the continual churning of cases, the lack of respect for people's time, the inefficiency of the process and, for many, the indignity of the experience. This Article argues that organizational culture and a long history of racism infect almost every aspect of how the Cook County criminal legal system produces a courtroom culture of detachment and alienation. The authors found, too, positive interactions that provide a roadmap for cultural change. Among those positive findings, the authors found evidence of individual judges holding the correct actors accountable, improving the transparency of the courtroom, and encouraging a positive culture. Using detailed ethnographic observations, this Article draws out a series of themes that illuminate two types of failures that characterize courtroom culture in Cook County: micro-level failures and structural-level failures.

Part I summarizes earlier studies on courtroom culture and organization, including research and commentary on Cook County's criminal legal system. Part II then describes the qualitative methods used to develop an observational dataset that illustrates the many ways in which everyday courtroom practices-- the waiting, informality, and opacity of proceedings--alienate participants and undermine confidence in the fairness and efficiency of the system by which justice is dispensed in the Cook County felony courts. Part III places the observational study's research and findings in a larger theoretical context of legal cynicism. Previously applied in analyses of police practices, legal cynicism is the product of systematic alienation from criminal legal processes and can change how ordinary people rely on and interact with the law and legal systems. Part IV concludes with a discussion of how recent changes in Cook County court practice--and perhaps applied more widely to other court systems-- combined with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the administration of justice, may finally disrupt Cook County's long-entrenched culture of marginalization in the courtroom.

[. . .]

The key contribution of this detailed observational study is its rich description of a culture that promotes alienation and detachment that persists in Cook County courtrooms by separating courtroom insiders from outsiders. In addition, this Article outlined two different types of pervasive failures in Cook County courts: micro-level and structural-level failures. The Article also unpacked how this constructed culture mirrors understandings of legal cynicism in ways that continue to entrench racial and class inequality and alienation. At the same time, some glimmers of hope underscore the importance of analyzing positive court culture construction for the future of Cook County criminal courts, and other court systems across the country.

This study focused specifically on Cook County, in part due to its impact and size, but also so that it might inform courts all across the United States. There is no reason to believe the micro- and structural-level failures observed in Cook County criminal courtrooms are unique to Cook County. Nor is there any reason to believe that Cook County is the only courtroom cultivating and reifying a deeply negative culture that affects both courtroom outsiders and insiders. Future research should take the framework for understanding failures we present here and place it in context of other court systems across the United States, with particular attention to recommendations for cultural reform might help create a new, more positive courtroom culture.

Maria Hawilo is a Distinguished Professor in Residence at The Loyola University School of Law.

Kat Albrecht is Assistant Professor at Georgia State University in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies.

Meredith Martin Rountree is a Senior Lecturer at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law.

Thomas Geraghty is the Class of 1967 James B. Haddad Professor of Law and formerly the Associate Dean for Clinical Legal Education and Director of the Bluhm Legal Clinic at The Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law.

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