Illinois Supreme Court Spanks Trial Court And Chicago Elections Board For Ruling Statute Unconstitutional

In twin cases, former aldermen Virgil Jones and Ambrosio Medrano, both convicted of federal felonies for misconduct in office, filed nomination papers to run for alderman again. Challenges were made to their nomination papers on the basis that the Illinois Municipal Code prohibited convicted felons from serving in an “elective municipal office.”

In both cases, the Chicago Election Board’s hearing examiner concluded that Jones and Medrano were ineligible to serve, and recommended that they not appear on the election ballot. Appeals were made to the Chicago Election Board. In both cases, the Board rejected the challenges because, it said, the statute prohibiting convicted felons from serving in an elective municipal office was unconstitutional. The challengers sought review in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois. In both cases, the circuit court affirmed the ruling of the Board.

The challengers sought direct review in the Illinois Supreme Court. The Supreme Court dismissed the appeals, stating that the cases were more appropriately handled by supervisory orders than by direct appeal.

The supreme court ruled that the Chicago Board of Elections did not have authority to consider the constitutionality of the Illinois statute. The orders by the Board rejecting the challenges to Jones and Medrano therefore were void.

The Illinois Supreme Court then ruled that the circuit court improperly affirmed the Board. The supreme court stated that the circuit court should have vacated the Board’s ruling and sent the case back the Board to rule in conformance with the statute that prohibits convicted felons from holding office. “Had the done that here, it [circuit court] would have had no need to address the merits of the Election Board’s constitutional analysis. Without a ruling of the constitutionality of the statute, there would in turn, have been no basis for seeking direct review by our court under Rule 302(a).”

For good measure, the Illinois Supreme Court found two more reasons that the circuit court’s “resolution of this case is fatally infirm.”

• First, the circuit court did not comply with Supreme Court Rule 18, which requires “that the circuit court state in writing that the finding of unconstitutionality is necessary to the decision or judgment rendered and that such decision or judgment cannot rest upon an alternate ground.” The supreme court stated that the non-constitutional flaw was not mentioned in the circuit court’s ruling.

• The Supreme Court was miffed that the Circuit Court of Cook County ignored controlling precedent from the Fifth District Court of Appeals. Using colorful language, the supreme court made it clear that the circuit court was not at liberty to ignore the Fifth District. “Although Hofer was decided by a panel of the appellate from the Fifth District, not the First District, where the Circuit Court of Cook County is located, that is of no consequence . . . The notion that the circuit courts are bound only by the appellate court decisions from their own district is a relic of the pre-1964 Illinois Constitution of 1870 and has been expressly disavowed by our court . . . Until this court says otherwise, an appellate court’s decision must therefore be followed regardless of the appellate court’s district.”

The Illinois Supreme Court chose to rule by supervisory order rather than issue an opinion through the normal course. Although supervisory orders are disfavored, it was appropriate in this case because “the manner in which this case was handled presents important issues regarding the administration of justice, and direct and immediate action is necessary to insure that the Election Board adheres to the law and that any challenge to its decision in the circuit court comports with controlling principles of judicial review.”

Both of these cases were decided by four justices. Justices Thomas, Freeman, and Burke took no part in the consideration or decision of the cases. You can have the full opinions in each case by clicking on the case citation links: Bryant v. Board of Election Commissioners of the City of Chicago, No. 104105 (2/23/07); Delgado v. Board of Election Commissioners of the City of Chicago, No. 104112 (2/23/07).