By Samah Assad, Brad Edwards, Christopher Hacker

CHICAGO (CBS) — Two bills that would strengthen privacy protections for sexual assault victims in Illinois unanimously passed the House judiciary criminal committee Tuesday and are a step closer to becoming law.

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The two pieces of legislation were prompted by a CBS 2 investigation that found the personal identifiers of child sexual assault victims were visible in publicly-available court documents in Cook County. This included victims’ names, home addresses and phone numbers.

The then-Clerk of Circuit Court’s failure to restrict the information at that time violated a state law, the Privacy of Child Victims of Criminal Sexual Offenses Act of 1986.

The two bills aim to prevent this from happening again in the state. Weeks after unanimously passing the Senate, the legislation unanimously passed the House judiciary criminal committee. They will soon be sent to the House floor for a vote. If passed, and pending Senate approval of amendments to the bills, they will then be sent to Governor J.B. Pritzker to be signed into law.

The legislation includes Senate Bill 2339, an amendment to the 1986 law. While the law already says the information must be restricted to a list of authorized individuals, such as law enforcement and members of the court, the amendment would require a court order for anyone outside that group who wants to obtain the information. Other information about the case, including proceedings and defendant information, would remain public.

The law would also clarify that the responsibility of restricting the information in case files falls on the clerks of circuit courts in the state.

The second piece of legislation, Senate Bill 2340, expands those same protections to adult victims of sexual assault.

Both bills were backed by the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center, the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, CASA of Cook County, and the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“I want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to protect those children, because it’s hard enough for them to disclose, hard enough for them come to Chicago CAC and tell their stories and go through this process of investigation,” said Char Rivette, Executive Director of the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center. “And to think they then may be subject to increased scrutiny, and any sort of revelation that they themselves were victimized, just really hurts not only the kids but hurts our ability to do good prevention work and good work to convince people to come forward and tell their stories.”

While both bills passed unanimously, the ACLU of Illinois and the Better Government Association opposed the latter, SB 2340.

During the hearing, and in written testimony, the ACLU argued the legislation violates the First Amendment because it would restrict access to criminal case files related to sex offenses unless a judge granted access.

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Rebecca Glenberg, a senior supervising attorney with the ACLU, said the group supports the privacy rights of those who survived sexual assault but argued “there are First Amendment principles at stake here that override those concerns.”

“What is assumed by the First Amendment is that all public records relating to criminal trials, in particular, are open, and that’s why the judge has to go through the special process in order to close them,” Glenberg said. “Our opposition to this bill is that it starts with all of those records being closed and puts the burden on the individual who wants access to go get it from the judge.”

Proponents of the bill, including Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez who spearheaded the legislation, said she believed restricting the adult victims’ personal information would not limit access to pertinent information about the case.

“We all know the amount of stress and harm that can be inflicted if these records are not completely restricted. It is my strong belief the only people who have the right to make their experience public as victims of sex crimes are the victims themselves,” Martinez said. “Without the ability to restrict these documents victims are at risk of being re-traumatized.”

CBS 2 first came upon the private information of child victims while reviewing case files for a different story. When CBS 2 brought its findings to then-Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown in September of 2020, Brown failed to restrict the cases for weeks. A spokesperson denied it was the Clerk’s responsibility, despite the fact that the records in question are maintained by the Clerk’s office.

Brown eventually committed to fixing the issue after Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx threatened to sue.

But CBS 2 checked again in January 2021 and found, while Brown’s office had restricted the private information in some cases, they also failed to restrict thousands of others that fell under the statute. At the time of those findings, Brown was no longer in office, and newly elected Clerk Martinez had taken the helm.

In a previous interview, Martinez said she was shocked by CBS 2’s findings.

“Under my watch, I’m not going to ignore it,” Martinez said. “I’m going to address it.”

Martinez, who spent 20 years in the Senate before becoming Clerk, drew on her connections in Springfield and collaborated with Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford on the new legislation.

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“It’s trauma in victim’s lives when they have been violated,” said Lightford, who introduced the bill in April. “And to know that that information could be exposed publicly is reliving your trauma.”

Brad Edwards