Cook County judges, sheriff agree: Suit challenging bail should be tossed

Cook County bond court judges and Sheriff Tom Dart are asking that a Cook County judge dismiss a lawsuit that contends that the sheriff and judges have violated the U.S. Constitution by holding suspects in custody awaiting trial simply because they are poor.

The lawsuit, filed last October on behalf of two Cook County inmates, is one of a series of cases cropping up around the country that contend the cash bail system used throughout the country discriminates against poor suspects who are unable to win release before trial while those with greater resources can buy their freedom.

Weeks after the lawsuit was filed, Dart publicly called for an end to the cash bail system in Cook County. “The system itself is not working,” Dart said at a press conference last November, “and we need to change that.” He noted that dozens of suspects accused of nonviolent crimes remained locked in Cook County Jail each night, while others who posed a risk were able to raise significant cash to win release.

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But while endorsing a change to the state statute to accomplish bail reform, Dart is now officially opposed to the lawsuit that names him as a defendant, as the jailer holding suspects in custody. Cara Smith, Dart’s chief policy officer, said in an interview Tuesday that the lawsuit “has done nothing but complicate” the sheriff’s efforts to accomplish reform.

“There was no lawful basis for this matter being filed against the sheriff,” Smith said. “The lawsuit only sought to declare the bail statute unconstitutional. It did not put in place any solutions.”

In their first response to the lawsuit, the Cook County bond court judges argue that there are multiple reasons the plaintiffs’ complaint was improper.

The judges contend that there is an established procedure for defendants to challenge their detention and seek review of bail, and assert the law does not permit those detained to go around the normal process and raise their complaints outside the criminal court division. The response, filed by Attorney General Lisa Madigan on behalf of the judges, contends that for defendants to go outside the normal process of seeking reconsideration in their cases amounts to the legal equivalent of an end-around.

The two defendants who brought the suit asked the chancery court to declare a class action on behalf of impoverished suspects. They contend that the current system — in which judges decide bail in each case, and defendants then must post 10 percent of that amount to be free —  unconstitutionally keeps some defendants locked up before their cases are tried simply because they are poor. Judges in the chancery court division sit without juries, where they routinely hear motions asking for rulings to halt illegal conduct.

The response by the judges notes that one of the two defendants, Zachary Robinson, managed to post his $1,000 bond days after the lawsuit was filed, and contends that he therefore has no basis to be a party to the lawsuit. Robinson was arrested in December 2015 on charges that he had stolen a laptop from his college; he won release on October 20, 2016, six days after the lawsuit was filed.

The response also contends that well-established law maintains that judges are immune from lawsuits regarding judicial acts.

Cook County Judge Celia Gamrath is scheduled to hear the defendants’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit next Tuesday.

Injustice Watch reporting fellow Jeanne Kuang contributed to this report.