Illinois Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis | Vimeo livestream screenshot
Elk Grove Village voters will not get the chance to vote on a referendum to limit the terms of its existing mayor and village board, after the Illinois Supreme Court said Gov. JB Pritzker and the state's Democrat-dominated legislature were within their rights to enact a law limiting the ability of voters to impose term limits on their local officials.
The state Supreme Court delivered the unanimous decision on Feb. 26. Justice Mary Jane Theis wrote the opinion.
The decision centered on the effort by voters in Elk Grove Village, in northwest Cook County, to place on the ballot a referendum for the March 17, 2020, primary election. The referendum would ask the village’s voters to impose new rules, limiting those serving as village president or village trustee on the village board to no more than two consecutive four-year terms.
The referendum would make those limits effective for the village’s next municipal elections in 2021, and it would have applied to those currently serving in office, as well as those seeking office next year.
However, the referendum question was swiftly challenged by supporters of the current village leadership. The challenge invoked an Illinois state law, signed last summer by Pritzker, which bars voters from applying term limits retroactively, to essentially forbid current mayors, trustees or council members from seeking reelection under the new rules. Rather, all municipal term limit referendums must apply prospectively, the state law said.
The law also expressly applied the limits even to so-called home rule communities, which generally enjoy greater autonomy to govern themselves under the Illinois state constitution.
The objectors prevailed when their challenge landed before the Elk Grove village electoral board. That board concluded the referendum violated the Illinois Municipal Code provisions pertaining to term limits referendums, and so tossed the question from the ballot.
Referendum supporters appealed to the Cook County Circuit Court, and there found a better reception.
They argued the new state law was unconstitutional, as it limited the ability of voters within a home rule municipality to select and establish the manner in which they would choose their local governing officials.
Cook County Judge Maureen Hannon sided with them and declared the new state law unconstitutional. She ordered the referendum placed back on the ballot.
Referendum opponents appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, however, and there, ultimately prevailed.
Writing for the unanimous court, Justice Theis said the state constitution is clear in granting permission to state lawmakers to limit home rule municipal powers.
“By enacting (the new law), the General Assembly demonstrated its intent that any term-limit referendum must be applied prospectively, because only terms served after the passage of the referendum may be considered to determine a candidate’s eligibility,” Theis wrote. “The General Assembly properly followed the required procedures and asserted its proper authority under the Illinois Constitution to limit a function of a home rule unit.”
The “novel reading” of the sections of the state constitution invoked by referendum supporters would “read (those sections) out of the constitution,” Theis wrote.
“The General Assembly may always limit the powers of a home rule unit … as long as it does so expressly,” she added.
Theis and her colleagues also rejected an attempt by referendum supporters to argue the new state law should be unconstitutional, because it could be used to invalidate term limits enacted in other communities, before the new state law was itself enacted.
The justices said that does not affect Elk Grove’s referendum question in any way.
“Whether the statute implicates voters’ constitutional rights as applied to term limit referenda previously passed in other municipalities does not affect Elk Grove Village or its voters,” Theis wrote. “Accordingly, we find the trial court erred in considering those provisions.”
Justice P. Scott Neville took no part in the decision, according to the opinion.
Neville, who was appointed to the court to fill the remainder of the term for the now-retired Justice Charles E. Freeman, is seeking election this spring to the seat he currently holds, representing Cook County and the state’s First Appellate Court District on the state high court.