Cook County Record

Monday, December 16, 2019

Chicago red light plaintiffs want another try, attack 'convenient' dismissal as legally flawed

By Jonathan Bilyk | May 6, 2016

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The plaintiffs behind what a judge called a “Herculean challenge” to the city of Chicago’s red light camera program have returned to Cook County court, saying they deserve another shot at arguing their case because a Cook County judge who dismissed their case in April not only erred, but in the process “ended up creating brand-new ‘rules’ of Illinois law.”

On May 2, a group of plaintiffs led by named plaintiff Terie Kata, filed a motion to reconsider their class action lawsuit against the city of Chicago in Cook County Circuit Court. The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys Patrick Keating, of the firm of Roberts McGivney Zagotta, of Chicago; Derek Y. Brandt, of downstate Edwardsville; and Andrea Bierstein, of Simmons Hanly Conroy, of New York.

The parties were scheduled to be in court for a hearing on the motion Friday morning, May 6.

Essentially, the reconsideration motion alleged Cook County Judge Rita M. Novak took “convenient” positions in opposition to legal precedents to justify the legality and constitutionality of the city’s red light camera program and the ordinance under which it was established.

On April 1, Novak had ruled in favor of the city, dismissing the lawsuit, which had been first filed in 2012, and which demanded the city’s red light program be shuttered and the hundreds of millions of dollars in fines paid by motorists since 2006 be refunded. Issuing tickets for $100 per violation to those the city said have been caught on camera running red lights, the city has collected about $60 million in fines under the program each year.

The Kata lawsuit directly challenged the validity of the state law the city said enabled it to create the red light program. That law allowed municipal governments in only counties in the Chicago and St. Louis metropolitan areas to establish such automated red light programs.

Plaintiffs, however, said such a law was forbidden by the Illinois constitution’s prohibition on “local laws,” which would apply for no rational reason to select communities or regions of the state.

Plaintiffs also argued the city, which said it created the red light program under its home rule powers, should have been required to reenact its ordinance following the passage of the 2006 state law. Since it did not, the plaintiffs said, all the tickets issued since 2006 should be considered illegal and void.

Novak, however, said she believed the state law could be considered “rational,” based on traffic counts and “different enforcement needs” in the Chicago and St. Louis areas, relative to the rest of the state.

And the judge disagreed with plaintiffs’ assertion regarding the need to reenact the ordinance, saying the ordinance actually took effect following passage of the state law, meaning the red light camera tickets were similarly supported by state law.

In their motion to reconsider, however, plaintiffs assailed Novak’s decision.

They questioned why Novak chose to dismiss, even though the city’s motion to dismiss did not address some of their challenges to the red light ordinance.

They also criticized her legal reasoning, saying her decision attempts to stretch legal precedent too far, “extending … to allow the creating (sic) of new classes of municipalities (of all sizes and types) by only the proxy of county” and substituting “a selective rehash of poorly reasoned specified legislation decisions” for the constitution’s “drafter’s intent.”

The plaintiffs said Novak’s decision not only supports a “legal fiction … that allows the legislature to pass effectively local laws by using population,” but carries it further, stretching precedent so far it would leave the state constitution’s language forbidding local laws “a dead letter.”

If the 2006 state law “defined counties, and permitted county-level red light camera ordinances only, then this court could hold its nose, throw the framer’s intent out the window and uphold it,” the plaintiffs said. “But (the law) goes much farther: instead of distinguishing 3 counties out of 102 on the basis of an unarticulated, but readily described difference, it attempts to divide over 1,200 municipalities in two groups, even though cities of all sizes and traffic levels, and quite small rural towns, are on both sides of the classification.”

The plaintiffs said such seemingly arbitrary division under the law “is destroying this State.”

“Now we have battles about unfair property tax systems, unfair school funding methods, different pension schemes and the like,” the plaintiffs said. To end such battles, the plaintiffs said the state constitution was written to give the courts the power to thwart local laws and “to strike it down where found.”

“We are not asking this court to eliminate all the ‘pretense’ that allows so much improperly private of (sic) legislation to avoid judicial scrutiny – only to refuse to sanction a dramatic expansion of this unintended deference that poisons its current opinion simply in order to resolve a hard … case,” the plaintiffs wrote.

In a release announcing the reconsideration request, Keating said the red light program represented “acts of theft so bold and so brazen that the political elites in this city cannot even fathom the wrongdoing here, much less do something about it.”

“The city’s wrongful taking of nearly a billion dollars, done in broad daylight over a decade, may be the type of government action that, in this city, is simply ‘too big to fail,’” Keating said in the statement.

The release noted a similar class action failed in 2015 when it reached the state Supreme Court, but could not secure the fourth vote required by the constitution to win approval, after two justices, including Anne M. Burke and Lloyd Karmeier recused themselves.

The release noted Burke is the wife of Chicago Alderman Ed Burke, who chairs the Chicago City Council’s Finance Committee and, as Democratic Ward Committeeman, helps the Democratic Party slate judges for election in Cook County.

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Organizations in this Story

Roberts McGivney Zagotta LLCSimmons Hanly ConroyCity of Chicago