Candidate Who Owed Village Money Booted From Ballot; Illinois Supreme Court Defines “Mixed Question Of Law And Fact”

John Cinkus intended to run for village trustee in the Village of Stickney, Illinois in April 2007. But in April 2006, he was cited under the Stickney Municipal Code for disorderly conduct. After a contested hearing, Cinkus was found guilty and ordered to pay a $100 fine. When Cinkus did not appear for a continued hearing, a judgment was entered for the $100 fine. Cinkus was given notice of the judgment in November 2006.

Cinkus tried to pay the fine in February 2007, a few days before he filed his nomination petition. But by then, under the Illinois Municipal Code, the Village could not accept the payment without a hearing.

Cinkus filed his nomination petition to appear on the election ballot. The petition was met with an objection. The objection was based in the Illinois Municipal Code, which states that a person who is in arrears on a debt owed to the municipality is not eligible for elected municipal office. The local election board ruled that Cinkus owed the $100 at the time he filed his nomination petition, and was ineligible for municipal office.

Cinkus appealed the board’s decision to the circuit (trial) court. The circuit court reversed the board. The election board then appealed to the appellate court, which reversed the circuit court and agreed that Cinckus should not appear on the election ballot.

Cinkus then appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, which affirmed in favor of the election board. The supreme court’s opinion defined the different issues and standards of review that may arise from an election board’s decision, then more broadly analyzed the “mixed question of fact and law” standard of review. This quote from the court is lengthy, but worthwhile if you’re struggling with an appeal from an agency or election board decision, or if you think you’re grappling with a mixed question of law and fact.

[T]his court identified three types of questions that a court may encounter on administrative review of an agency decision: questions of fact, questions of law, and mixed questions of fact and law. As a result, “[t]he applicable standard of review depends upon whether the question presented is one of fact, one of law, or a mixed question of fact and law.” … An administrative agency’s findings and conclusions on questions of fact are deemed prima facie true and correct. In examining an administrative agency’s factual findings, a reviewing court does not weigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the agency. Instead, a reviewing court is limited to ascertaining whether such findings of fact are against the manifest weight of the evidence. An administrative agency’s factual determinations are against the manifest weight of the evidence if the opposite conclusion is clearly evident … In contrast, an agency’s decision on a question of law is not binding on a reviewing court. For example, an agency’s interpretation of the meaning of the language of a statute constitutes a pure question of law. Thus, the court’s review is independent and not deferential … Mixed questions of fact and law “are ‘questions in which the historical facts are admitted or established, the rule of law is undisputed, and the issue is whether the facts satisfy the statutory standard, or to put it another way, whether the rule of law as applied to the established facts is or is not violated.’ … [T]his court held … that an examination of the legal effect of a given state of facts involves a mixed question of fact and law with a standard of review of “clearly erroneous.” … [T]his court [has] explained that an administrative agency’s decision is deemed “clearly erroneous” when the reviewing court is left with the “definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.’’

After all that, the supreme court did not state what standard of review it used in this decision. The court stated that “we are left with the sole question” of the correct interpretation of the Illinois Municipal Code. So presumably, this case presented a pure question of law, requiring an independent (de novo) standard of review. The rule of law here was disputed — i.e., the correct interpretation of the statute — so the issue was not a mixed question of law and fact.

The whole case, Cinkus v. Village of Stickney Municipal Officers Electoral Board, No. 104471 (4/23/08), is available by clicking here.