Federal Judge Lets Civil Rights Lawsuit Against Illinois Over Gun Violence Proceed

A Chicago federal judge on Tuesday allowed the remnants of a gun violence and civil rights lawsuit against the State of Illinois to proceed rather than first be reviewed by an appellate court.

The decision from U.S. District Court Judge Joan B. Gottschall denied a petition from the state to put in for an intermediate appeal of an earlier decision rather than wait for a final judgement to be rendered by the court, which is when appeals are usually filed.

The case concerns three Illinois residents who filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in October 2018 against Illinois, the governor and the State Police alleging a failure to protect African American children from trauma caused by pervasive gun violence in black communities.

Among other claims, the plaintiffs allege that the state is infringing upon their children's rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act by allowing trauma induced by gun violence to impede equal access to educational success.

Gottschall decided in late September that two of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit lacked standing to pursue the case, but, crucially, that the state's attempts against the third plaintiff to dismiss the case could not prevail.

The novel claims raised by the case—that state authorities with oversight over firearms dealers have some liability for post-traumatic stress disorder incurred by the plaintiffs' children—caused lawyers for Illinois to seek permission from Gottschall to appeal her decision which allowed the third plaintiff to proceed with the suit.

These types of intermediate appeals are reserved for "exceptional circumstances" when parties differ greatly on the application of the law to the facts at hand and when an appellate court, upon clarifying this issue of law, would "materially advance" the case at trial.

JB Pritzker
JB Pritzker speaks at the Illinois Bicentennial party at Navy Pier in Chicago, Illinois, December 3, 2018. Pritzker, as governor, was named in the suit against the State of Illinois claiming that officials have not done enough to protect African-American communities against gun violence. Paul Natkin/Getty

Before the judge issued Tuesday's ruling on the question of appeal, the state filed another motion with the court asking that the suit be dismissed on the grounds that a recently passed law provided many of the remedies that the plaintiffs had been seeking.

Gottschall reasoned in her decision that this question of continued relevance—brought about due to the enactment of the Firearm Dealer License Certification Act in January—worked against the state in asking her to allow an appeals court to weigh in before trial. Because Illinois could, perhaps, easily argue for the resolution of the case due to the new legislation, the intermediate appeal, which is designed to expedite court proceedings, could inadvertently prolong the case by focusing on less decisive issues.

The defendants have also sought an appeal from the appellate courts based on the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution, which immunizes individual states from many lawsuits based on federal law in federal court. This type of appeal is granted automatically and does not need to be certified by Gottschall. Illinois argued that its immunity should protect it from being liable under the Americans with Disabilities Act as interpreted by the plaintiffs.

When reached for comment, Thomas Howard Geoghegan, a lawyer for the remaining plaintiff, Demetria Powell, called Tuesday's ruling "an excellent opinion."

"This opinion by the district court gives the state the authority to take additional measures regarding enforcement, so why are they fighting it," Geoghegan asked. "Especially when you have the opportunity to restrict illegal gun trafficking that is a scourge of the west and south sides of this city."

The State of Illinois declined to comment for this story, citing pending litigation.