Exasperated Illinois Supreme Court Instructs Lower Courts On Constitutional Analyses.

The Illinois Supreme Court flashed frustration in an opinion that instructs appellate and circuit court judges to stop deciding cases on constitutional grounds when other issues first offer a resolution. The case involved an adjudication of wardship of a minor accused of improper sexual conduct with other minors in her care. On rehearing, the Illinois Appellate Court ruled that Section 115–10 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which allows certain out-of-court statements of non-testifying minors, was unconstitutional.

An exasperated Supreme Court stated that the constitutional analysis was unnecessary. Practitioners and judges must listen to the supreme court’s chafing.

We have repeatedly stated that cases should be decided on
nonconstitutional grounds whenever possible, reaching constitutional
issues only as a last resort … Yet our admonitions on this topic seem to fall
not infrequently on deaf ears. The situation has become so untenable
that we have recently taken the somewhat extraordinary step of
adding to our rules a requirement that before deciding a case on
constitutional grounds, the court must state, in writing, that its
decision cannot rest upon an alternate ground. See 210 Ill. 2d R.
18(c)(4) (eff. September 1, 2006). We have also spelled out that we
may “summarily vacate and remand” any circuit court judgment which
fails to comply with this or any other provision of our new Rule 18.
See 210 Ill. 2d R. 18(c)(4).

The appellate court’s decision presents yet another example of
reaching constitutional issues unnecessarily. The appellate court
initially filed a decision based on nonconstitutional grounds–the court
ruled the evidence at issue was inadmissible for failure to comply with
the statutory requirements, but that this error was harmless. No.
1–01–2776 (2004). On rehearing, however, the court inexplicably
deleted this analysis and, over dissent on this precise point (see 355 Ill.
App. 3d at 578-79 (Quinn, J., dissenting)), proceeded directly to a
confrontation clause analysis without addressing any possible
nonconstitutional grounds for deciding the case. 355 Ill. App. 3d at
574-75.

This alone was erroneous, as we have repeatedly attempted to
make plain. However, the appellate court went on, having already
decided the case before it, to evaluate the facial constitutionality of
section 115–10 and declare the entire statute unconstitutional. Not
only did this latter ruling violate the prohibition against deciding
constitutional issues without first exhausting all potential
nonconstitutional grounds for resolving the case, it was entirely
unnecessary to decide the case before it.

Yikes! This court was annoyed. Practitioners who want to avoid the slippery slope the appellate court slid on here should listen to the supreme court’s design for this kind of analysis. Here it is:

When a court is asked to evaluate the admission of out-of-court
statements into evidence, the first step is determining whether
the statement passes muster as an evidentiary matter. If the proponent
seeks to admit the statement pursuant to section 115–10, the
statement must be evaluated to see whether it meets that statute’s
requirements; if it is sought to be admitted pursuant to an exception
to the hearsay rule, that claim must be evaluated. Only once the
statement has first been found admissible as an evidentiary matter
should constitutional objections–including Crawford-based
confrontation clause claims–be dealt with … This
is the only analytical “flow chart” that comports with the rule that
courts must avoid considering constitutional questions where the case
can be decided on nonconstitutional grounds.

The entire case, In re E.H., is available here.