On Monday, October 2, 2023, Tim Hecke, a staffer at reader-funded public safety news outlet CWBChicago, published an article about his unusual encounter in a Cook County courtroom. Hecke had been monitoring Central Bond Court, the first stop for anyone charged with a felony in Cook County when he was confronted by Associate Judge Maryam Ahmad. Ahmad asked Hecke if he was reading or writing, and he responded that he was taking notes for a story he was working on. Ahmad warned Hecke that she did not allow reading or writing in her courtroom, citing concerns about defendants’ privacy.
Hecke was surprised by Ahmad’s reaction, as he had taken notes in court many times before without any issues. In fact, the Chief Judge of Cook County, Timothy Evans, had signed an administrative order in 2014 allowing note-taking in courtrooms. Hecke said that he was not aware of any restrictions on note-taking in Ahmad’s courtroom and had not been asked to show his media credentials.
Hecke obeyed Ahmad’s order and put his notepad and pen away. However, he was still escorted out of the courtroom by a sheriff’s deputy. Ahmad later explained that she did not allow note-taking in her courtroom because it might expose defendants’ personal information. However, according to Hecke, this reasoning does not make sense, as defendants’ information is publicly available in the clerk’s computer system.
Hecke’s experience raises questions about the right of the public and the press to take notes in court. According to U.S. District Judge Elaine Bucklo, the right of the press to access court proceedings is derivative of the public’s right, and journalists have no greater rights than the general public. In other words, people have the right to take notes in court, and journalists can do so because they are people, not because they are journalists.
Hecke emailed the office of Chief Judge Evans to report the incident and ask questions about the court’s policy on note-taking. However, he received no response to his questions. He also tried contacting Judge Ahmad directly, but she did not reply to his message.
It appears that Cook County judges are allowed to pick and choose who gets to take notes in their courtrooms, despite Chief Judge Evans’ 2014 order allowing note-taking. This lack of transparency and consistency in court policies raises concerns about open and transparent courtrooms.
The incident highlights the need for clear guidelines and communication about court policies, particularly in regard to note-taking. It also underscores the importance of transparency and accountability in the court system and the need for journalists and the public to be vigilant in ensuring that these principles are upheld.