Lightfoot, Martinez call for women to have reproductive health privacy in court records

With one week to go until the March 19 primary, Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez brought out former Mayor Lori Lightfoot to help her unveil a new push to redact and seal court records that mention a woman’s reproductive health, an event Martinez’s Democratic challenger dismissed as “window dressing.”

The initiative is in its early stages — it must still be approved by legislators in Springfield and the office has yet to secure contracts to scrape millions of court files for the data. Even so, Lightfoot applauded the effort to automate a process that women have to proactively apply for now.

“We need systemic protection for women,” Lightfoot said at a news conference at the Daley Center Tuesday. “Somebody who understands that to her core is Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez. My friend, somebody that I admire, not only through her years of service and dedication but because she understands and has lived herself the life of a woman: single mom, started in a mailroom, worked her way up, but has never forgotten the importance of making sure that she is an advocate, a fierce advocate, for people in need, and particularly women who have been victimized.”

The goal is for past and current case filings to be sealed or redacted in public court records if they include “names, birthdays and other identifying information” as well as mentions of “rape and incest, violence endured while pregnant and the resulting symptoms, misoprostol prescriptions prescribed after sexual assaults, fertility treatments and embryo information, paternity testing, access to birth control, female genital mutilation, abortions and miscarriages,” according to Katie Dunne, executive director of the research and program development organization Chicago77, who has been working with Martinez on the program.

A group of Northwestern University graduate students from the Kellogg School of Management and McCormick School of Engineering also helped construct a database framework for the program starting in fall 2022, Dunne said.

Asked about the timing of the announcement — with few days left until Election Day — Martinez said, “This is something I started the minute I got here, so it’s nothing political, this is more about reproductive rights, the right to privacy,” adding she wanted to have legislation passed by June, had spoken with the governor’s office and was seeking sponsors in both chambers of the legislature. Martinez’s campaign staff were in attendance at the event.

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, who leads the House Reproductive Health and the Dobbs Decision Working Group, said she and Martinez had “very preliminary discussions” but the proposal is “an interesting concept and fits in” with the working group’s focus on protecting patients and providers. Spokespeople for Gov. J.B. Pritzker did not respond to a request for comment.

Martinez’s Democratic challenger in Tuesday’s primary, Mariyana Spyropoulos, said Tuesday’s rollout was an effort to distract from a recent investigation from the Illinois Answers Project that found Martinez’s office “accidentally exposed online the names of at least 5,000 children charged with crimes… that are mandated by law to be kept secret.”

“It’s interesting the incumbent clerk of the circuit court finally realizes the urgency of keeping the court records of Cook County residents private,” Spyropoulos said in an emailed statement. “She claims to have been working on this recent initiative for years, yet she shrugged off the fact that her office made the records of 5,000 juveniles public for weeks … Everytime someone points out a failure in the office, she runs to hold a news conference announcing a new initiative.”

The clerk’s office has previously said “any potential exposure was brief, nondamaging and limited in nature,” and that the information was not widely available, since users would have needed identifying information to access records.

aquig@chicagotribune.com