‘Catastrophic’ state supreme court decision ‘a blow to law enforcement accountability’ sheriff’s office says

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled Thursday to allow a lawsuit brought by sheriff’s officers suspended without pay pending disciplinary proceedings to move forward, a decision that could end up costing taxpayers millions.

SHARE ‘Catastrophic’ state supreme court decision ‘a blow to law enforcement accountability’ sheriff’s office says
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart

Cook County sheriff Tom Dart

Sun-Times file

A narrowly decided Illinois Supreme Court ruling Thursday could potentially leave Cook County taxpayers on the hook for millions in back pay for sheriff’s officers who were suspended while facing disciplinary proceedings.

In a 4-3 decision, justices sided with officers who sued Sheriff Tom Dart in 2017 after they were suspended without pay while they faced disciplinary proceedings before the office’s merit board.

The justices upheld an appellate court’s decision that the officers could sue the sheriff’s office over the legitimacy of the merit board before their disciplinary cases were determined and allowed the officers to resume their case in circuit court that also seeks repayment for wages lost during their suspensions.

Attorneys Chris Cooper and Cass Casper celebrated the court’s decision Thursday as a victory for the officers, noting their clients went years without pay as they awaited a decision in their cases by the merit board.

“Today Tom Dart is being told in crystal clear language that the officers are entitled to due process and entitled to their back pay,” Cooper said of the ruling.

The sheriff’s office bemoaned the decision, saying it will significantly increase the time it takes to discipline an officer for misconduct and make it more difficult to fire bad officers.

“Today’s Illinois Supreme Court decision is a catastrophic blow to law enforcement accountability,” sheriff’s office spokesman Matthew Walberg said in an emailed statement. “The decision rewards employees who engaged in criminal, unethical and despicable conduct at the expense of Illinois taxpayers.”

At the heart of the ruling is a 2014 circuit court decision that determined the sheriff’s merit board was operating illegally when Dart appointed a board member to a term of less than six years to fill a vacancy and voided the board’s determinations.

That decision was upheld by an appellate court two years later.

Cooper and Casper said that after the court’s ruling, Dart should have immediately stopped bringing cases before the merit board.

“Dart could have stopped this then if he just did that,” Casper said Thursday. “He could have fixed it.”

In 2018, the state legislature changed the law governing the appointment of board members to allow Dart to fill the remainder of a previous member’s term.

But attorneys for the officers argued that in the years between the the appellate court’s decision and the law’s revision, Dart was violating the court’s order by continuing to bring disciplinary cases before the merit board.

When their clients were suspended without pay pending proceedings by the merit board, they sued the sheriff’s office, claiming the proceedings were illegitimate. A circuit court judge initially dismissed the case, telling the officers they needed to await a decision by the merit board before bringing their suit.

That decision that was later overturned by an appellate court, leading to the state supreme court hearing arguments in the case earlier this year.

The officers’ case will now go back to circuit court, where a judge could grant their request for class-action status in the case, potentially allowing hundreds of officers to join the suit and be owed millions in wages withheld during their suspensions.

At issue going forward is if and when the merit board began operating in full compliance of the law, attorney’s for the officers said.

“This ensures executive government accountability and respect for the law by ensuring that when a court gives a government official an order that they will follow that order,” Casper said.

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