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Illinois Republican Party v. Illinois State Board of Elections

October 21, 1999

ILLINOIS REPUBLICAN PARTY, APPELLEE, V. THE ILLINOIS STATE BOARD OF ELECTIONS ET AL. (THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY OF ILLINOIS ET AL., APPELLANTS).


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Heiple

-Agenda 13-May 1999.

The question presented by this appeal is whether the Illinois State Board of Elections (the Board) must conduct a public hearing on a complaint when the Board fails to determine in a closed preliminary hearing that the complaint was not filed on justifiable grounds. We hold that it must.

BACKGROUND

On February 19, 1997, the Illinois Republican Party filed two complaints with the Board. One complaint alleged that the Democratic Party of Illinois had violated sections 9-10 and 9-11 of the Election Code (the Code) (10 ILCS 5/9-10, 9-11 (West 1996)) by filing inaccurate reports of campaign contributions received and made by it during 1996. The other complaint alleged that the United Democrats of Illinois had violated sections 9-3, 9-4, and 9-10 of the Code (10 ILCS 5/9-3, 9-4, 9-10 (West 1996)) by failing to file a statement of organization with the Board and by failing to report its contributions received and expenditures made during 1996. Upon receiving the complaints, the Board scheduled a closed preliminary hearing for March 11, 1997, and appointed a hearing examiner.

At the closed preliminary hearing, the Republican Party (hereinafter, complainant) offered exhibits supporting the allegations of its complaints. The Democratic Party of Illinois and United Democrats of Illinois (hereinafter, respondents) submitted written objections to the complaints. Following the hearing, the hearing examiner concluded that the complaints were filed on justifiable grounds and recommended to the Board that the complaints be docketed for public adjudicative hearings. The Board's general counsel then notified the Board that he agreed with the recommendation of the hearing examiner.

On March 17, 1997, four members of the Board voted to find that the complaints were filed on justifiable grounds. Three Board members voted against making such a determination. *fn1 Because a five-vote majority of the eight-member board had not been achieved, the Board's general counsel then recommended that the Board enter an order "dismissing the complaints for grounds of procedure and not on the merits" so that an appeal might be taken from the Board's action. The Board then voted unanimously to enter the following order:

"The Board is unable to reach a decision by vote of 5 members with respect to any matter raised by the record at closed preliminary hearing and the Board makes no determination as to whether complaint [sic] was filed upon justifiable grounds. IT IS HEREBY ORDERED: 1. No further action is to be taken. 2. That the complaint is dismissed on procedural grounds, the Board being unable to achieve a vote of 5 members with respect to any issue raised by the record."

Complainant appealed this order directly to the appellate court as provided by section 9-22 of the Code (10 ILCS 5/9-22 (West 1996)). In a published opinion, the appellate court remanded the cause to the Board, ordering that those members who voted that the complaints were not filed on justifiable grounds state of record their reasons for so voting. 294 Ill. App. 3d 915. Respondents petitioned this court for leave to appeal, which we granted. 177 Ill. 2d R. 315(a).

ANALYSIS

Section 9-21 of the Code provides, in relevant part, as follows:

"Upon receipt of [a] complaint, the Board shall hold a closed preliminary hearing to determine whether or not the complaint appears to have been filed on justifiable grounds. *** If the Board determines that the complaint has not been filed on justifiable grounds, it shall dismiss the complaint without further hearing.

Whenever in the judgment of the Board, after affording due notice and an opportunity for a public hearing, any person has engaged or is about to engage in an act or practice which constitutes or will constitute a violation of any provision of this Article or any regulation or order issued thereunder, the Board shall issue an order directing such person to take such action as the Board determines may be necessary in the public interest to correct the violation." 10 ILCS 5/9-21 (West 1996).

In addition, section 1A-7 of the Code provides that "[f]ive members of the Board are necessary to constitute a quorum and 5 votes are necessary for any action of the Board to become effective ***." 10 ILCS 5/1A-7 (West 1996).

Respondents contend that if the Board is unable to achieve a majority determination as to whether or not a complaint has been filed on justifiable grounds following the closed preliminary hearing, the Board is prohibited from taking further action on the complaint. Respondents assert that because five votes are necessary for any action of the Board to become effective, the Board may not conduct a public hearing on a complaint unless five of its members determine that the complaint was filed on justifiable grounds. Respondent's arguments are based on an incorrect reading of the relevant statutory provisions.

Section 9-21 of the Code requires the Board to hold a closed preliminary hearing upon receipt of a complaint alleging a violation of the Code. 10 ILCS 5/9-21 (West 1996). This same section then requires that the Board dismiss the complaint without further hearing if, at the Conclusion of the closed preliminary hearing, the Board determines that the complaint has not been filed on justifiable grounds. Because five votes are necessary for any action of the Board to become effective, the Board may not dismiss a complaint after the closed preliminary hearing unless at least five members vote to do so.

Respondents suggest that because five votes are needed to dismiss a complaint after the closed preliminary hearing, five votes are also required to proceed with a public hearing on a complaint. Nothing in the Code, however, supports such a requirement. Respondents appear to be laboring under the belief that, at the Conclusion of the closed preliminary hearing, the Board is required to vote on whether the complaint was filed on justifiable grounds. On the contrary, the only requirement in the statute is that the Board dismiss the complaint if it determines that the complaint was not filed on justifiable grounds. 10 ILCS 5/9-21 (West 1996). The statute thus does not require any majority vote by the Board prior to a public hearing on the complaint.

Furthermore, it is clear that the statute contemplates a public hearing for those complaints not dismissed by the Board. In the sentence which immediately follows the description of the procedure for dismissing a complaint, section 9-21 requires that the Board afford "an opportunity for a public hearing" before taking any action to correct an alleged violation of the Code. 10 ILCS 5/9-21 (West 1996). This requirement of a public hearing is consistent with the broader purposes of the Code's campaign finance disclosure provisions. See 10 ILCS 5/9-10 et seq. (West 1996) (mandating the filing of reports listing the source and amount of campaign contributions and expenditures). By requiring that every complaint not dismissed by a majority of the Board proceed to a public hearing, the Code effectively promotes the goals of candor and openness underlying these substantive provisions.

At the Conclusion of the preliminary hearing in the instant case, the Board failed to achieve a vote of five members to dismiss the complaints as not filed on justifiable grounds. For the reasons stated above, the complaints were then required to proceed to a public hearing. The Board thus lacked authority to enter its subsequent order dismissing the complaints without reaching their merits. Accordingly, the judgment of the Board is set aside and the complaints are remanded to the Board for a public hearing.

Respondents also contend that the appellate court erred in addressing a number of defenses raised by respondents in their objections to the complaints filed with the Board. Because we have concluded that the Board's action on the complaints was unauthorized, we agree with respondents that it was improper for the appellate court to address these additional matters. Therefore, the appellate court's judgment remanding the proceeding to the Board is affirmed but the remainder of its opinion is vacated.

Appellate court judgment affirmed in part and vacated in part;

Board decision set aside; cause remanded.

JUSTICE RATHJE, specially Concurring:

I agree entirely with the majority's Conclusion that, unless five Board members conclude during the closed preliminary hearing that a complaint was not filed on justifiable grounds, the Board must conduct a public hearing on that complaint. I write separately only to underscore the ...


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