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People v. Murphy

March 19, 1998

THE PEOPLE EX REL. RICHARD A. DEVINE, STATE'S ATTORNEY OF COOK COUNTY, ET AL., PETITIONERS,
v.
THE HONORABLE MICHAEL J. MURPHY, JUDGE OF THE CIRCUIT COURT OF COOK COUNTY, ET AL., RESPONDENTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice McMORROW

The primary issue presented in this original action for a writ of mandamus is whether section 23-15 of the Property Tax Code (35 ILCS 200/23-15 (West 1996)), violates the separation of powers provision of the Illinois Constitution (Ill. Const. 1970, art. II, §1). For the reasons which follow, we hold that it does not.

BACKGROUND

In 1995, the General Assembly enacted a comprehensive revision of the tax objection provision of the Illinois Property Tax Code, section 23-15. See 35 ILCS 200/23-15 (West 1996). The principal modification of prior law made by the revision of section 23-15 was the abolition of the judicially created doctrine known as constructive fraud. Under this doctrine, courts had been prevented from granting direct relief from excessive property tax assessments unless the assessments were shown to be actually or constructively fraudulent. See generally A. Ganz & D. Laswell, Review of Real Estate Assessments-Cook County (Chicago) v. Remainder of Illinois, 11 J. Marshall J. of Prac. & Proc. 17, 37-60 (1977) (reviewing the history of the doctrine of constructive fraud).

Section 23-15 replaced the doctrine of constructive fraud with a new statutory mechanism which permits objections to property tax assessments to be addressed directly in the circuit court. The assessments which the court considers are those which have been reviewed and corrected by the board of appeals or review. Under section 23-15, the tax assessment adopted by the boards is presumed to be correct and legal. However, this presumption may be rebutted by clear and convincing evidence. The court is to hear the objection to the property tax assessment de novo and determine whether the assessment is incorrect or illegal. See 35 ILCS 200/23-15(b)(2), (b)(3) (West 1996). At the same time that the General Assembly revised section 23-15, it also made minor revisions to section 23-30 of the Property Tax Code. Section 23-30 authorizes the State's Attorney to reach settlement agreements in tax objection cases. See 35 ILCS 200/23-30 (West 1996).

On February 6, 1997, Judge Michael J. Murphy sua sponte issued a memorandum opinion in In re Application of Rosewell v. CPC International Inc./Corn Products, Nos. 91-1197, 92-2448, 93-3539, 94-4093, 95-1143 cons. (Cir. Ct. Cook Co.), in which he declared section 23-15 unconstitutional. In the memorandum opinion, Judge Murphy noted that the assessment of property taxes is a matter committed to the legislature and not the courts. Citing to several cases involving the doctrine of constructive fraud, Judge Murphy concluded that under separation of powers principles, the courts, in the absence of fraud or constructive fraud, have no power to directly review property tax assessments. Accordingly, Judge Murphy held that the legislature's attempt to abolish the doctrine of constructive fraud violated the separation of powers provision of the Illinois Constitution (Ill. Const. 1970, art. II, §1).

In addition to ruling that section 23-15 was unconstitutional, Judge Murphy also indicated in the memorandum opinion that he would not sign a settlement order which had been negotiated pursuant to section 23-30. Judge Murphy stated that, because he had ruled section 23-15 unconstitutional, he could not sign the settlement order absent some showing that the assessment to be affected by the order was the product of fraud or constructive fraud. Signing and approving a settlement order which did not establish fraud or constructive fraud, Judge Murphy explained, would require the Judge to exceed the proper scope of judicial review and would violate the separation of powers doctrine.

Following the issuance of Judge Murphy's memorandum opinion, several additional orders declaring section 23-15 unconstitutional were entered in the circuit court of Cook County. In two property tax objection cases which were being tried under section 23-15, Judge Murphy repeated his ruling that section 23-15 was unconstitutional and, consequently, declared mistrials. In a third case, Judge Murphy refused to enter a settlement order which had been negotiated pursuant to section 23-30. In a separate case, Judge Curtis Heaton also refused to enter a settlement order which had been negotiated under section 23-30. In addition, Presiding Judge Francis Barth and judge Murphy issued a public notice which provided, in part, that pending resolution of the constitutionality of section 23-15, "All regularly scheduled Calendar Calls, Scheduling Calls, Trial Management Calls, Trial Assignment Calls, and Trials in Tax Objection Cases are immediately suspended until further notice."

As a result of the orders entered in the circuit court declaring section 23-15 unconstitutional, petitioner, Richard A. Devine, State's Attorney of Cook County, filed a motion in this court seeking leave to file a petition for a writ of mandamus. We granted the motion. The petition for writ of mandamus requests this court to order the respondent Judges of the circuit court of Cook County to (1) vacate their orders holding unconstitutional section 23-15; (2) vacate their orders refusing settlements in tax objection cases based on the unconstitutionality of section 23-15 and to approve such settlements where the State's Attorney has negotiated in good faith and has adequately represented the public interest in reaching the settlements; and (3) withdraw the public notice issued by Presiding Judge Barth and judge Murphy suspending all tax objection cases.

We granted leave to several property tax objectors to join in the petition for mandamus. We also allowed the Civic Federation, the Taxpayers' Federation of Illinois, the Chicago Bar Association, and the Illinois State Bar Association to file a joint amici curiae brief in support of petitioners. 155 Ill. 2d R. 345(a).

ANALYSIS

I.

Statutes are presumed constitutional and the party challenging the validity of a statute has the burden of clearly establishing that it is unconstitutional. People v. Inghram, 118 Ill. 2d 140, 146 (1987). " `t is our duty to construe acts of the legislature so as to uphold their constitutionality and validity if it can reasonably be done, and, further, that if their construction is doubtful, the doubt will be resolved in favor of the validity of the law attacked.' [Citations.]" Inghram, 118 Ill. 2d at 146.

Section 23-15 provides, in relevant part:

"(2) The taxes, assessments, and levies that are the subject of the objection shall be presumed correct and legal, but the presumption is rebuttable. The plaintiff has the burden of proving any contested matter of fact by clear and convincing evidence.

(3) Objections to assessments shall be heard de novo by the court. The court shall grant relief in the cases in which the objector meets the burden of proof under this Section and shows an assessment to be incorrect or illegal. If an objection is made claiming incorrect valuation, the court shall consider the objection without regard to the correctness of any practice, procedure, or method of valuation followed by the assessor, board of appeals, or board of review in making or reviewing the assessment, and without regard to the intent or motivation of any assessing official. The doctrine known ...


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