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Cook County courts criticized for keeping divorce files secret

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Cook County courts criticized for keeping divorce files secret

Cook County courts criticized for keeping divorce files secret

Chicago couples who have gone through a divorce know that the whole process can be upsetting and disorienting. Those going through a divorce often find it uncomfortable to discuss details of their personal finances and problems with their marital relations and family life with lawyers and a judge, and to have much of that go into the public record once the court has concluded its work.

According to recent reports, some wealthy and well-connected people in the Chicago area have been able to avoid that public disclosure by having family court judges identify the individuals only by their initials. In other cases, Cook County courts have sealed the legal files in divorces or other legal matters concerning the rich and powerful.

Under Illinois law, courts may file a case under a fake name if the judge has “good cause,” but the courts have not defined what constitutes “good cause.” Federal courts allow for anonymous cases in exceptional cases or in cases where there is a real threat of physical danger to the people involved. Generally, it’s not enough for people to be simply embarrassed by the information or to fear that it will hurt their finances. By contrast, in Cook County courts, local politicians and others have convinced judges to keep them anonymous because the information revealed could attract media attention.

In the legal community, many disagree with this kind of secrecy. Critics say it sets up a two-tiered system of justice with one tier for the rich and influential and one tier for everyone else.

It’s important for Chicago couples going through a divorce to feel they’re being treated fairly by the system. At a time in a person’s life when a spouse is now a kind of opponent, it is especially important to have others on one’s side and for the court to remain neutral.

Source: Chicago Tribune, “Divorce court weds power and privacy,” Cynthia Dizikes and Todd Lighty, April 28, 2013

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