Split First District Appellate Court Rules Clearly Erroneous Standard Applies In Election Law Dispute

In this election law case, the incumbent disputed her challenger’s petition signatures. The incumbent claimed that the challenger sat in her car while others approached voters’ houses and obtained nomination petition signatures. The incumbent signed the petitions as the circulator, who the statute requires to be present when the petition is signed by a voter.

The election board ruled that the challenger satisfied the “presence” requirement. But the circuit court ruled otherwise, and threw out a sufficient number of signatures to disqualify the challenger from being placed on the election ballot. The First District Appellate Court — reviewing the Election Board’s decision, not the circuit court’s, as it is required by statute to do — affirmed the Election Board and restored the challenger to the election ballot.

The appellate court’s majority viewed the dispute as presenting a mixed question of law and fact, prompting a “clearly erroneous” standard of review. The case illustrates the problems courts have defining “mixed question of law and fact.” The court explained that a mixed question of law and fact “asks the legal effect of a given set of facts . . . To resolve a mixed question of law and fact, ‘a reviewing court must determine whether established facts satisfy applicable legal rules.’ . . . Here, we must decide whether the established facts — that Andrade watched from a car while her campaign workers obtained some signatures for her nominating petition —satisfy the presence requirement of section 10-4 of the Code.” The majority stated that the “clearly erroneous” standard applied only to review of administrative agency decisions.

The dissent allowed for no discretion to the Board. It viewed the appellate dispute as a question of law and concluded that a de novo standard of review applied.

The case shows the difficulty courts continue to have with the “mixed question of law and fact” standard of review. And it’s no wonder. In almost every case we are asked the legal effect of a given set of facts. Saying so as if that justifies a lighter standard of review does not advance the analysis. If the courts want to give administrative decisions an added measure of discretion, then they should say so and justify the rule with legal analysis. We could then do away with the unhelpful fiction of “mixed question of law and fact.”

The whole case, Ramirez v. Andrade, No. 1-07-0378 (3/30/07), is available by clicking here.