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Mellon v. Coffelt

May 17, 2000


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Lake County. No. 98--CH--915 Honorable Wallace B. Dunn, Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Geiger

This appeal arises out of the trial court's dismissal of the plaintiff's complaint challenging the constitutionality of section 2-- 1009A of the Code of Civil Procedure, which imposes a surcharge on the filing fee in civil litigation to fund court-annexed mandatory arbitration. 735 ILCS 5/2--1009A (West 1998). On appeal, the plaintiff argues that section 2--1009A violates the following clauses of the 1970 Illinois Constitution: the uniformity clause (Ill. Const. 1970, art. IX, §2), the free access clause (Ill. Const. 1970, art. II, §12), the due process clause (Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, §2), and the equal protection clause (Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, §2).


The court-annexed mandatory arbitration system (the System) was created by the Illinois legislature in 1986 and codified at sections 2-- 1001A through 2--1009A of the Code of Civil Procedure. 735 ILCS 5/2-- 1001A through 2--1009A (West 1998). Section 2--1001A provides that "the Supreme Court ***, by rule, may provide for mandatory arbitration of such civil actions as the Court deems appropriate in order to expedite in a less costly manner any litigation wherein a party asserts a claim not exceeding $50,000." 735 ILCS 5/2--1001A (West 1998). The legislature left many of the provisions regarding the administration of the System, including the appointment of arbitrators, the procedures for rejecting an arbitration award, and the determination of expenditures for the program, to the discretion of the Illinois Supreme Court. See 735 ILCS 5/2--1002A through 2--1004A, 2--1007A (West 1998).

With regard to funding the System, the legislature has provided that, in counties that are authorized by the supreme court to utilize mandatory arbitration and that have a population of less than 3 million inhabitants, the clerk of the circuit court shall charge and collect an arbitration fee of $8

"at the time of filing the first pleading, paper or other appearance filed by each party in all civil cases ***. Arbitration fees received by the clerk of the circuit court *** shall be remitted within one month after receipt to the State Treasurer for deposit into the Mandatory Arbitration Fund, a special fund in the State treasury for the purpose of funding mandatory arbitration programs *** with a separate account being maintained for each county." 735 ILCS 5/2--1009A (West 1998).

The Illinois Supreme Court has enacted several rules pertaining to the operation and effect of the System, including the types of actions subject to mandatory arbitration (155 Ill. 2d R. 86), the appointment of arbitrators (177 Ill. 2d R. 87), the scheduling and conduct of the hearings (134 Ill. 2d R. 88; 166 Ill. 2d R. 90), discovery (166 Ill. 2d R. 89), and the tendering and rejecting of an award (166 Ill. 2d Rs. 92, 93). Similarly, the Nineteenth Judicial Circuit, of which Lake County is a part, has enacted rules for the administration of the System, including a rule stating that all civil actions that are exclusively for money in an amount exceeding $5,000, but not exceeding $30,000, shall be subject to mandatory arbitration. See 19th Judicial Cir. Ct. R. 17.01(c) (eff. January 2, 1997). There is no doubt that the System is an integral part of our court system.

The plaintiff alleges that she is a member of a class of persons filing civil cases in Lake County who are charged an $8 arbitration fee but who cannot use the System because it is unavailable to parties filing actions that are not exclusively for money damages. All parties filing civil cases in Lake County are charged an arbitration fee of $8 despite whether the party may utilize the System. The plaintiff objects to having to pay the $8 fee when she filed a proceeding for a guardianship of a minor because she does not have the option of utilizing the System in litigating her guardianship proceeding.

The plaintiff filed a complaint alleging that the arbitration fee, imposed pursuant to section 2--1009A, is an unconstitutional tax under the uniformity (article IX, section 2), free access (article II, section 12), due process (article I, section 2), and equal protection (article I, section 2) clauses of the 1970 Illinois Constitution. The plaintiff also filed a motion for class certification, which was never ruled upon by the trial court. The trial court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss and denied the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment.

On appeal, the plaintiff appears to argue that the constitutionality of the fee is subject to the strict scrutiny test, and that, even if the rational relation test is applied, the fee nevertheless fails to pass constitutional muster. We first consider whether to apply the rational relation or strict scrutiny test in determining the constitutionality of section 2--1009A.


The plaintiff argues that the constitutionality of the fee should be analyzed under a strict scrutiny test. When a statute imposes a direct impediment to the exercise of a fundamental right, it cannot be upheld unless it is supported by sufficiently important state interests and is closely tailored to effectuate only those interests. See Boynton v. Kusper, 112 Ill. 2d 356, 369 (1986). The courts will subject legislation to such strict scrutiny if the statute at issue impinges upon a fundamental right. Harris v. Manor Healthcare Corp., 111 Ill. 2d 350, 368 (1986). The plaintiff appears to argue that the fee impedes the plaintiff's ability to litigate her guardianship proceeding and, therefore, should be subject to strict scrutiny. The premise of the plaintiff's argument is that a proceeding concerning the guardianship of a minor necessarily involves a fundamental right. It is in this faulty premise that the plaintiff's quest for the application of strict scrutiny fails.

Only rights " 'that lie at the heart of the relationship between the individual and a republican form of nationally integrated government' " are deemed to be fundamental, and only a few rights have been selected for this esteemed status. Harris, 111 Ill. 2d at 368, quoting People ex rel. Tucker v. Kotsos, 68 Ill. 2d 88, 97 (1977). One example of a fundamental right is the right to marry. Boynton, 112 Ill. 2d at 368.

In Boynton, the court analyzed under strict scrutiny a statute that required county clerks to pay $10 of the fee collected for marriage licenses into a fund for domestic violence shelters. The plaintiff class consisted of individuals who had applied for marriage licenses and were advised that the license would not be issued unless the entire fee was paid. The plaintiffs argued that the fee violated the due process and uniformity clauses of the Illinois Constitution in that those ...

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