The Illinois Supreme Court has upheld an appellate court’s ruling that Gov. Bruce Rauner’s decision to fire an Illinois Prisoner Review Board member, for alleged discrepancies in financial documents, can’t be undone by the courts.
The Nov. 29 decision was penned by Justice P. Scott Neville Jr., with concurrence from Chief Justice Lloyd Karmeier and Justices Thomas Kilbride, Robert Thomas, Rita Garman, Mary Jane Theis and Anne Burke. The decision affirmed a ruling by Illinois Fifth District Appellate Court, which sits in Mount Vernon.
In April 2013, then-governor Pat Quinn appointed Eric Gregg to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board for a six-year term. At the time, Gregg was mayor of Harrisburg, in Saline County, but he resigned to accept the board position. Among the board’s duties are overseeing the parole system and making recommendations to the governor on clemency petitions.
In October 2015, Rauner removed Gregg from the board, alleging Gregg made false statements in his bankruptcy case and in a financial disclosure form filed in connection with his board membership.
Gregg was in ill health around the time of his appointment. As a board member, Gregg was barred from outside income.
One issue was a medical lift chair Gregg accepted as a gift after Quinn announced Gregg’s appointment. The gift was not reflected on an economic interest statement. Gregg said the omission was an innocent mistake.
Other issues included income listed in Gregg’s 2014 bankruptcy filing and money in a fundraising account for his medical bills. Gregg said the income listing was a clerical error and a church, rather than he, had access to the account.
Gregg asked for an injunction against Rauner in Saline County Circuit Court, which is in southern Illinois. Rauner argued Gregg’s removal was justified, but more importantly, the decision to discharge Gregg was not open to court scrutiny.
Associate Judge Todd Lambert granted the injunction, finding first that Rauner’s action was subject to judicial evaluation and second there were insufficient grounds for termination.
Rauner appealed to Illinois Fifth District Appellate Court. In a 2-1 ruling, the appellate court overturned Lambert, but never reached the question whether Gregg’s removal was warranted, because the majority concluded Rauner’s action was beyond the purview of a court.
Gregg then took the matter to the Supreme Court of Illinois.
In backing the appellate majority, the state high court noted the board is the governor’s proxy, and, as a result, the governor has the power to fire board members.
“The IPRB is not one of those rare agencies whose functions require complete independence from gubernatorial influence,” Justice Neville said. The board acts ”as the Governor’s agent in hearing applications for executive clemency and sitting as an administrative body making final decisions in parole matters.”
Neville noted the board aids the governor in executing laws, belonging to the executive branch, not the judicial branch, as argued by Gregg. In this light, the board is not an independent, bipartisan agency enjoying political independence. As a consequence, the state’s chief executive has authority to discharge those who help him perform his duties.
Neville pointed out one reason the 15-member board is not meant to be politically neutral, is that there is no requirement membership be balanced between Democrats and Republicans.
Gregg has been represented by Winters, Brewster, Crosby & Schafer, of Marion.
Rauner has been represented by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s Office.