De Novo Standard For Judge-Candidate’s Appeal Of Successful Ballot Challenge

Chris Ward wanted to be a judge in the state trial court in Will County, Illinois. Circuit court judges are elected by popular vote in Illinois, so Ward filed a candidacy petition to run in the primary. But when he filed, he did not live in the subcircuit he filed in.

Daniel Goodman, husband of one of Ward’s primary opponents, filed an objection to Ward’s candidacy petition. Goodman argued Ward was ineligible to run for judge in a subcircuit he did not live in when the petition was filed.

The Will County electoral board agreed with Ward and ruled that Ward could appear on the election ballot. Goodman appealed the board’s decision to the circuit (trial level) court, which agreed with him, and precluded Ward from the ballot. Ward then took the case to the Illinois Appellate Court, which also agreed with Goodman.

The Illinois Supreme Court took Ward’s appeal. The standard of review was among the preliminary issues. Did the case present a question of law, a question of fact, or a mixed question of law and fact? Each has a different standard of review. The question in this case, the supreme court ruled, was whether the governing law had been interpreted properly given the undisputed facts. Here’s how the Illinois Supreme Court explained it:

As in other administrative review cases, the standard of review we apply to an election board’s decision depends on what is in dispute, the facts, the law, or a mixed question of fact and law … In this case there is no argument about the facts. The issue is whether, given those facts, the Will County officers electoral board correctly concluded that Ward’s nominating petitions were sufficient under the controlling law to permit his name to appear on the ballot for the February 2, 2010, primary election as a candidate for the Democratic nomination to fill a subcircuit vacancy.

Our court has held that where the historical facts are admitted or established, the controlling rule of law is undisputed and the issue is whether the facts satisfy the statutory standard, the case presents a mixed question of fact and law for which the standard of review is “clearly erroneous.” … We have also held, however, that where the historical facts are admitted or established, but there is a dispute as to whether the governing legal provisions were interpreted correctly by the administrative body, the case presents a purely legal question for which our review is de novo … The matter before us here falls within the latter category. Our review is therefore de novo, a standard we have characterized as “independent and not deferential.”

In the end, the supreme court ruled that Ward did not belong on the election ballot. Read the whole case, Ward v. Goodman, No. 109796 (3/24/11), by clicking here.