Sangamon County Courthouse | Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]
A state appeals court will be asked to weigh in on the question of whether state courts can have any input at all on the question of whether Illinois’ state constitution puts any constraints at all on state lawmakers who want to rack up debt to cover state expenses.
Last week, John Tillman, CEO of the Illinois Policy Institute, filed a notice in court in Springfield of his intent to appeal the decision of a Sangamon County judge, who ruled Tillman, as a taxpayer, should not be able to sue the state for issuing bonds Tillman asserted violated the state constitution.
Tillman, of suburban Golf, in partnership with Warlander Asset Management, filed a petition in Sangamon County court in Springfield seeking permission to sue the state to block the state government from continuing to pay off $14 billion in so-called general obligation bonds issued in 2003 and 2017.
Warlander is an investment firm based in New York. Warlander has loaned $25 million to Illinois, according to court documents.
The complaint centered on Section 9 of the Illinois state constitution. Language in that section appears to limit the state’s ability to take on general obligation debt. Particularly, the complaint sought to argue the state violated Section 9 by failing to identify the “specific purposes” for the debt when issuing the bonds.
In a brief filed in the case, Tillman pointed to discussions recorded in the official transcripts of Illinois 1970 constitutional convention, which he said supported his position. Under the previous constitution, state lawmakers couldn’t take on more than $250,000 debt without seeking voter approval.
In deciding to lift that restrain, delegates expressed concern future governors and legislators would simply spend “next year’s revenues” to fund “popular programs” immediately. They appeared to worry lifting the debt cap would allow the state government to use Section 9 as “an excuse for continual deficit financing.”
Tillman also pointed to language in the transcript which indicated debt should be taken for a “specifically identifiable improvement,” such as a new “residence hall” at a state university.
Tillman argued this language indicated the constitution’s drafters wished for Section 9’s “specific purposes” language to restrict bond issues to capital improvements, such as roads, bridges and buildings that will be used by future taxpayers asked to pay off the debt.
Any other use of bonds is “unconstitutional and unenforceable,” Tillman argued.
The state responded by ridiculing Tillman’s petition and arguments as a “policy paper masquerading as a complaint.” The state asserted the “specific purposes” language was vague, and allows state leaders to issue long-term debt for any reason, including the funding of government in the current year.
Sangamon County Associate Judge Jack D. Davis II sided with the state, denying Tillman’s petition to sue.
But Davis’ ruling went further, declaring the state bond issues were constitutional because “the legislation stated with reasonable detail the specific purposes for the issuance of the bonds and assumption of the debt as well as the objectives to be accomplished by enactment of the legislation.”
The judge further said the courts can't weigh in on the question because it was a "political" question that should be left to lawmakers, and not judges.
Davis has served on the Sangamon County bench since he was appointed to the post in 2014. He was 39 years old when he was appointed. He has never been elected by voters.
Judge Davis had a 14-year law career before he was appointed to the bench, working in private practice as the owner of Davis Law Offices in Springfield. He graduated with a law degree from Northern Illinois University in 2001.
Judge Davis is one of eight associate judges serving in the Sangamon County court. The court, based in Springfield, has six elected circuit judges.
According to a profile on Lawyers.com, Davis Law Offices specialized in personal injury lawsuits, including asbestos litigation, product liability, toxic torts and medical malpractice, among others.
Judge Davis is the son of Jack Davis Sr., who served as an Illinois state representative from 1976-1986 and as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for one term from 1987-1989. Davis Sr., who had owned a steel warehouse business before he was elected to office, was succeeded in Congress by Democrat George Sangmeister, who defeated him in November 1988. After his career in Congress, Davis Sr. served as an assistant secretary of the Air Force from 1990-1992. He went on to host a Springfield radio show in the early 2000s.
Davis Sr. died in 2018.
Should Tillman appeal Davis’ ruling, as his notice of appeal filed in Sangamon County court indicates, the matter would be heard by the Illinois Fourth District Appellate Court in Springfield.
No briefs have yet been filed on appeal.
A spokesperson for Tillman declined comment.