Illinois Supreme Court: Clear Error Standard For Election Board’s Justifiable Grounds Decision

We pick up today with the second part of the Illinois Supreme Court’s opinion in Republican Party v. Illinois State Board of Elections. (The entry directly below explains the important facts and the court’s ruling that it has power to review tie votes rendered by the Board.)

The supreme court also ruled on the correct standard of review of the Board’s decision: “clearly erroneious.”

Arguments over the standard of review ran to both ends of scale − the Republicans arguing the Board should get no discretion, the Board arguing that its decision should be reviewed for “abuse of discretion.” Here is how the court described the parties’ positions: “The Party argues that the dismissals should be reviewed de novo because the Board did not make a decision that may be granted deference. Conversely, the Board argues that the dismissals should be reviewed for abuse of discretion. According to the Board, the “justifiable grounds” standard grants it discretion to dismiss complaints after preliminary investigations.”

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled that Board’s inquiry involved a mixed question of law and fact, which called for a standard of clear error. This is how the supreme court saw it:

We agree that the statutory standard of “justifiable grounds” [for filing the complaint before the Board] focuses on the complaint’s factual and legal sufficiency. The essential inquiry is whether the complaint is factually and legally justified. A decision based on those factors does not require the exercise of discretion. Rather, the Board is only required to apply the Election Code provisions to the facts presented at the closed preliminary hearing to determine whether the complaint was filed on justifiable grounds.

In our view, this inquiry presents a mixed question of fact and law. As noted, an agency’s decision on a mixed question of fact and law is reviewed for clear error … The standard of review is deferential, providing for reversal only when the reviewing court has a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made.

The whole case, Cook County Republican Party v. Illinois State Board of Elections, No. 106139 (1/23/09), is available by clicking here.