Appeal from the Circuit Court of Du Page County. No. 01-MR-149 Honorable Ronald B. Mehling, Judge, Presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Presiding Justice Hutchinson
Plaintiffs, Puffer-Hefty School District No. 69 (Puffer-Hefty) and Bruce Weeks, appeal from an order of the circuit court of Du Page County on administrative review affirming a decision by defendant Du Page Regional Board of School Trustees (the Board). Pursuant to sections 7-- 2a(b) and 7--11 of the School Code (105 ILCS 5/7--2a(b), 7--11 (West 1996)), the Board dissolved Puffer-Hefty and annexed its territory to defendant Downers Grove School District No. 58 (Downers Grove).
Plaintiffs filed a complaint seeking administrative review of the Board's decision and a judgment declaring section 7--2a(b) of the School Code unconstitutional. The trial court affirmed the Board's decision but declined to rule on the constitutionality of the statute. Plaintiffs timely appeal to this court, challenging the Board's decision and the constitutionality of the statute. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the Board's decision and uphold the constitutionality of section 7--2a(b) of the School Code.
The following facts are taken from the record on appeal, including the Board's factual findings, which are "held to be prima facie true and correct" (735 ILCS 5/3--110 (West 2000)). Puffer-Hefty is situated within Du Page County, and in July 1997 its population numbered less than 5,000 residents. In October 1996, residents of Puffer-Hefty filed a petition pursuant to sections 7--2a(b) and 7--11 of the School Code (105 ILCS 5/7--2a(b), 7--11 (West 1996)), seeking to dissolve the school district and annex its territory to a contiguous school district. In December 1996 the Board dismissed the petition because the petition lacked the proper designation of a "committee of 10" petitioners as required by section 7--6(c) of the School Code (105 ILCS 5/7--6(c) (West 1996)), and the Board, therefore, lacked jurisdiction.
On January 27, 1997, defendant Committee of Ten conducted a public informational meeting to inform residents of Puffer-Hefty of the proposed dissolution and to answer questions regarding the proposed dissolution. Prior to that, the Committee of Ten gave at least 10 days' notice of the meeting by publication in the Chicago Tribune.
On July 25, 1997, the Committee of Ten filed a second petition seeking dissolution of Puffer-Hefty and annexation of its territory pursuant to sections 7--2a(b) and 7--11 of the School Code (105 ILCS 5/7--2a(b), 7--11 (West 1996)). As of July 25, 1997, Puffer-Hefty had 1,947 registered voters. The petition filed on July 25 contained 1,169 signatures. The parties later stipulated that, of those 1,169 signatures, 3 individuals had moved or died before July 25, 1997, thereby invalidating those signatures, and 65 signatures were duplicates and should be counted only once. The parties agreed that, after the subsection of those 68 signatures, the petition contained 1,101 valid signatures.
On October 6, 1997, the Board dismissed the second petition after it determined that it violated section 7--8 of the School Code (105 ILCS 5/7--8 (West 1996)), which prohibited the filing of a similar petition for dissolution and annexation within two years of the resolution of an earlier petition. On administrative review, the trial court reversed the Board's dismissal of the second petition, and this court affirmed. See Holbrook v. Regional Board of School Trustees, 305 Ill. App. 3d 744 (1999).
On remand, the Board resumed hearings and designated December 10, 1999, as the final date by which the parties could submit signature withdrawals, rescission of signature withdrawals, and signature additions to the original petition. The Board reconvened on July 17, 2000, to rule on the petition. The Board first made decisions regarding the validity of the signatures to be withdrawn from and added to the petition. The Board then voted unanimously that the petition was signed by a majority of the registered voters of Puffer-Hefty and that the petition was properly filed under section 7--2a(b) of the School Code. The Board thereafter recognized the dissolution of Puffer-Hefty and indicated it would conduct further hearings regarding the issue of annexation.
On February 15, 2001, after conducting additional hearings, the Board decided to annex Puffer-Hefty to Downers Grove. See 105 ILCS 5/ 7--11 (West 1996). The Board's decisions were reflected in its written order dated February 22, 2001. On March 5, 2001, plaintiffs filed a complaint in the trial court seeking administrative review of the Board's decision and seeking a declaratory judgment that section 7-- 2a(b) of the School Code was unconstitutional. Both sides fully briefed the issues. On January 25, 2002, the trial court affirmed the Board's decisions to dissolve Puffer-Hefty and annex its territory to Downers Grove. Plaintiffs timely appeal following the trial court's denial of their motion to reconsider.
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[The preceding material is nonpublishable under Supreme Court Rule 23.]
Plaintiffs first contend that the trial court erred when it declined to rule on the constitutionality of section 7--2a(b) of the School Code (105 ILCS 5/7--2a(b) (West 1996)). Plaintiffs argued that section 7--2a(b) violated the equal protection clause (U.S. Const., amend. XIV) and constituted special legislation (Ill. Const. 1970, art. IV, §13). The trial court determined that, because non-constitutional grounds existed to deny Puffer-Hefty relief, it was unnecessary to consider the constitutionality of section 7--2a(b).
In determining whether the trial court erred when it declined to consider the constitutionality of section 7--2a(b), we are guided by the general principles governing an agency's or a tribunal's authority to decide constitutional issues raised in administrative proceedings. An administrative agency must accept as constitutional the statute over which it has jurisdiction. Board of Education of Rich Township High School District No. 227 v. Brown, 311 Ill. App. 3d 478, 490 (1999). An administrative agency lacks the authority to invalidate a statute on constitutional grounds or even to question its validity. Texaco-Cities Service Pipeline Co. v. McGaw, 182 Ill. 2d 262, 278 (1998), citing Moore v. City of East Cleveland, 431 U.S. 494, 497 n.5, 52 L. Ed. 2d 531, 536 n.5, 97 S. Ct. 1932, 1934 n.5 (1977); Brown, 311 Ill. App. 3d at 490. Such matters must be raised before the trial court, which is vested with original jurisdiction over constitutional issues raised in a complaint for administrative review. Brown, 311 Ill. App. 3d at 491. A trial court's review of constitutional issues on administrative review is de novo. Brown, 311 Ill. App. 3d at 488, citing Howard v. Lawton, 22 Ill. 2d 331 (1961).
In the present case, plaintiffs' complaint for administrative review specifically sought a declaration that section 7--2a(b) of the School Code was unconstitutional. Both sides fully briefed the constitutional issue. The trial court was given the opportunity to consider the issue. See, e.g., Michigan-Chestnut Ltd. Partnership v. Rosewell, 104 Ill. App. 3d 249, 252 (1982), citing Steven v. Falese Land Co., 50 Ill. App. 3d 231, 246 (1977) (declining to address constitutional questions that the trial court was not given an opportunity to consider). However, it declined to rule on the constitutional issue. This was error.
Remand is unnecessary, though. If the issue is one of law and is fully briefed and argued by the parties, this court may consider the issue for the first time on appeal. See Committee for Educational Rights v. Edgar, 174 Ill. 2d 1, 11 (1996), citing People ex rel. Daley v. Datacom Systems Corp., 146 Ill. 2d 1, 27 (1991); see also Church v. State of Illinois, 164 Ill. 2d 153, 163 (1995) (wherein the trial court did not consider the constitutionality of a statute but the reviewing courts did). The constitutionality of section 7--2a(b) of the School Code presents a question of law. Whether section 7--2a(b) violates equal protection or constitutes special legislation has been sufficiently briefed and argued by both sides to facilitate our review. Furthermore, the questions are of substantial public importance, and we believe the public interest and judicial economy favor consideration of the merits. See Committee for Educational Rights, 174 Ill. 2d at 11. Accordingly, we proceed to the merits of plaintiffs' argument.
Section 7--2a(b) of the School Code provides in relevant part:
"Any school district with a population of less than 5,000 residents shall be dissolved and its territory annexed as provided in Section 7--11 by the regional board of school trustees upon the filing with the regional board of school trustees of a petition adopted by resolution of the board of education or a petition signed by a majority of the registered voters of the district seeking such dissolution." 105 ILCS 5/7--2a(b) (West 1996).
Plaintiffs argue that section 7--2a(b) of the School Code violates equal protection (U.S. Const., amend. XIV) and constitutes special legislation (Ill. Const. 1970, art. IV, §13). Plaintiffs assert that the statute violates equal protection because it treats school districts with populations of less than 5,000 differently from other school districts with populations greater than 5,000. Plaintiffs argue that, in school districts with populations greater than 5,000, the decision to dissolve and annex must be approved by a majority of voters at an election. See 105 ILCS 5/7--1(a) (West 1996). Plaintiffs urge this court to apply a strict scrutiny analysis because the statute concerns the fundamental right to vote.
The Committee of Ten counters that different classes of people may be treated differently if the classifications created by the statute are reasonably related to the objective of the statute (In re Petition of the Village of Hanover Park, 312 Ill. App. 3d 834 (2000)). The Committee of Ten also maintains that the appropriate analysis is rational basis review because everyone in the Puffer-Hefty school district was treated equally with respect to petitioning for dissolution without an election. The Committee of Ten cites Latham v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, 31 Ill. 2d 178 (1964), in support of its position. In Latham, our supreme court considered whether article 34 of the School Code (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1963, ch. 122, par. 34--1 et seq.) denied equal protection because it deprived residents of Chicago of the right to vote for members of the board of education, a right statutorily enjoyed by residents of smaller districts in Illinois. The Latham court adopted the reasoning from People v. Deatherage, 401 Ill. 25 (1948), and determined that the legislature possessed the power to legislate in reference to public school matters and that the right to vote was purely a permissive that the legislature bestowed in furtherance of its policy. Latham, 31 Ill. 2d at 186. The Latham court concluded that the state's regulatory interests were sufficient to justify the restriction and, therefore, the statute did not deny the residents equal protection. Latham, 31 Ill. 2d at 186-87.
The primary rule of statutory interpretation is to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the legislature, which should be construed primarily from the language of the statute. East St. Louis Federation of Teachers, Local 1220 v. East St. Louis School District No. 189, 178 Ill. 2d 399, 411-12 (1997), citing Bonaguro v. County Officers Electoral Board, 158 Ill. 2d 391, 397 (1994). Legislation enjoys a strong presumption of constitutionality. Bilyk v. Chicago Transit Authority, 125 Ill. 2d 230, 235 (1988). Parties seeking to challenge the constitutionality of a statute bear the burden of rebutting the presumption and establishing a constitutional violation. East St. Louis Federation of Teachers, 178 Ill. 2d at 412, citing People v. Blackorby, 146 Ill. 2d 307, 318 (1992). Accordingly, a court will construe a statute as ...