A judge has thrown out a lawsuit that alleged that Cook County’s use of cash bail was unconstitutionally discriminatory, finding it was the prerogative of lawmakers, not judges, to set limits on the way judges grant bonds.
In the order Tuesday, Judge Celia Gamrath wrote that she shares concern about the impact of unaffordable cash bail but held that her intervention would violate “the constitutional system of checks and balances.”
“(The) court cannot step in to cure a perceived flaw in the setting of individual bonds by individual judges assigned with the task,” she wrote.
The lawsuit against five Cook County judges alleged that the cash bail system — intended to ensure defendants’ appearance in court — unconstitutionally discriminated against minority and poor suspects.
The proposed class-action suit was filed in 2016 on behalf of two detainees who were unable to post their cash bails and sat in Cook County Jail for nearly a year before pleading guilty.
Alexa Van Brunt, one of the attorneys who brought the suit, said the legal team plans to appeal the judge’s decision. Gamrath dismissed the lawsuit before attorneys could make substantive arguments about the bail system, she said.
“What we are asking (the judge) to do is to ensure that these judges follow the law, and that is ultimately always a court’s role,” Van Brunt said. “It feels political because she was being asked to rule on the actions of other Circuit Court judges and, frankly, she just punted it.”
A statement from the Illinois attorney general’s office, which represented the judges in the suit, noted that “important steps” toward bail reform were taken since the suit was filed in 2016.
It pointed to the move last year by Chief Judge Timothy Evans to prohibit judges from setting bond in amounts higher than defendants could afford to pay — in effect, the same remedy that the lawsuit sought.
As a result of the reform efforts, the proportion of felony defendants released without having to pay any money has skyrocketed, according to data from the chief judge’s office.
Van Brunt cautioned, though, that while Evans’ order was “laudable,” she said it won’t carry the legal force that a favorable ruling from Gamrath would have.
“While conditions have improved and there have been significant reforms in terms of pretrial justice in the county, there are still many people, especially black people, who are locked up because they cannot afford bail,” Van Brunt said.