Appeals court: Chicagoans don't have constitutional right to school board elections

By Jonathan Bilyk | Mar 30, 2018

Chicago residents could have the right to vote in a school board election. But under Illinois’ state constitution, Chicago residents do not necessarily have the right to a school board election, a state appeals court has ruled.

On March 29, a three-justice panel of the Illinois First District Appellate Court upheld a Cook County judge’s decision to toss out a lawsuit brought by former Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn and a group of Chicago residents, challenging state law granting the mayor of Chicago unchecked authority to appoint the members of the Chicago Board of Education, which they said violates their rights under the Illinois constitution.

“What is at stake here is not the right to vote, but the right to have a court order an election,” the justices wrote in their decision.

Justice Robert E. Gordon authored the opinion for the Chicago-based state appeals court. Justices Margaret McBride and David Ellis concurred in the decision.

Justice Robert E. Gordon

In 2016, the Chicago resident plaintiffs, Irene Robinson, Antwain Miller, Marc Kaplan, Christopher Ball, Daniel Morales-Doyle and Jitu Brown, identified as parents and grandparents of Chicago Public Schools students, filed suit in both Cook County Circuit Court and Chicago federal court against the Chicago school board and the state of Illinois. They were later joined in both actions by Quinn.

The lawsuits contained essentially the same arguments, alleging state laws and policies allowing Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other Chicago mayors to appoint the school board violated several rights under either the U.S. or Illinois state constitutions. The case in Cook County court focused on the state constitutional claims, while the federal case dealt with alleged violations of the national governing document.

The Cook County lawsuit centered on claims a 1995 state law granting Chicago’s mayor the ability to appoint school board members, even without City Council oversight and approval, violates the rights of citizens in Chicago to equal protection and equal right to vote. The lawsuits particularly noted CPS is the largest school district in Illinois, yet is the only one whose members are not directly elected by citizens.

The lawsuits assert the board also holds unconstitutional taxing powers, with its ability to set property tax levies annually.

Earlier versions of the lawsuits also included claims of racial discrimination. However, those claims were not raised on appeal.

The lawsuits asked the courts to order the city and the state to set elections for school board members.

To date, neither the city nor the state has formally answered the lawsuits in court, as both a federal district judge and Cook County Judge Michael T. Mullen dismissed the actions. The plaintiffs then appealed both results. To date, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has not yet ruled on the appeal of the federal case.

At the same time, the Illinois appellate decision noted, Illinois state lawmakers have acted on legislation giving citizens in Chicago the right to vote in school board elections for the first time in the city’s history, beginning in 2023. However, those measures have remain shelved in a state House of Representatives committee since September 2017.

For now, the Illinois appeals justices handling the Quinn state lawsuit said the plaintiffs had not established any constitutional violations in the manner in which Chicago’s school board members are selected.

Justices noted the Illinois constitution does not require any elections for any school board or other school district “officers,” saying merely the “selection” of such school officers is subject to the provision of the Illinois General Assembly. In this case, the justices said, the General Assembly appears to have opted to give the mayor of Chicago the sole vote on who should serve on the Board of Education.

Justices noted this is likely in recognition of Chicago’s “unique” needs and challenges, as Illinois’ largest city, as mayoral selection, rather than local elections, could help to prevent “balkanization” of the city, helping to deliver resources where they are most needed.

“Mayoral control makes it easier to implement wholesale changes or a reallocation of resources across neighborhood lines, because the mayor is obliged to look at the city as a whole,” the justices wrote. “With the quantity of moving parts in a big city, it may be difficult for voters to know exactly who is to blame if things are not working. With the board appointed by the mayor, it is easy to know who to blame - the mayor - and voters may show any displeasure they may have at the polls, every four years.”

The justices noted the city and Cook County also have been granted special status under the state constitution in other areas, as well, dampening the plaintiffs’ claims of unfair treatment relative to the state’s other 859 school districts.

And the justices rejected the plaintiffs’ claims essentially concerning taxation without representation, noting the Chicago Board of Education’s taxing power is limited and overseen by the state legislature.

Justices pointed to actions taken in 2016 and 2017 by Illinois lawmakers to allow the Chicago School Board to boost property taxes to help fund teacher pensions.

“These amendments show that the Chicago School Board’s taxing authority is under the scrutiny and control of a legislative body, namely, our state legislature,” the justices wrote. “Plaintiff’s claims of ‘taxation without any representation through a legislative body’ … is similarly not accurate. There is representation through a legislative body, namely, the state legislature who regulates the tax levy rates.”

Plaintiffs are represented in the action by attorneys from the firm of Despres Schwartz & Geoghegan, of Chicago.

The Board of Education has been represented by the firm of Pugh Jones & Johnson, of Chicago.

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Organizations in this Story

Chicago City Mayor's Office Chicago Board of Education City of Chicago Despres Schwartz & Geoghegan Ltd. Illinois First District Appellate Court Illinois General Assembly Pugh, Jones & Johnson, P.C. State of Illinois U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois

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