Illinois Supreme Court to Decide Whether FOIA Covers State's Attorney's Office

Our previews of the latest additions to the Illinois Supreme Court’s civil docket continue this morning with Nelson v. The Office of the Kendall County State’s Attorney, a case from the Second District Appellate Court. Nelson is the second case on last term’s civil grants list relating to the state Freedom of Information Act. The case presents the issue of whether the office of the State’s Attorney is a “public body” subject to FOIA.

The plaintiff filed separate actions against Kendall County and the office of the Kendall County State’s Attorney, seeking injunctions requiring the defendants to turn over emails that he contended were responsive to records requests he had submitted to both entities. Both actions were dismissed, with the Circuit Court holding that the County could not be compelled to turn over the State’s Attorney’s records, and the State’s Attorney wasn’t a “public body” within the meaning of FOIA. The plaintiff only challenged the second of those holdings on appeal.

The Illinois FOIA requires every “public body” to make public records available for inspection on request (subject to many exceptions). A requestor who gets turned down has a choice of either putting the matter before the Attorney General’s public access counselor or filing an action in circuit court. A decision from the public access counselor may be reviewed by the appellate courts in the same way as a final administrative decision. The circuit court, on the other hand, considers the applicability of FOIA de novo and may order the public body to turn over the records.

A “public body” is defined as “all legislative, executive, administrative or advisory bodies” of the state. You’ll note what’s missing from that definition: any mention of “judicial” bodies. In Copley Press, Inc. v. Administrative Office of the Courts, the Appellate Court held that FOIA meant what it said – and didn’t say – and that accordingly, judicial entities were not subject to the Act.

The Second District was very careful to circumscribe the issue before it. It was not deciding whether or not the State’s Attorney was in fact a member of the judicial branch of government, the court insisted. Rather, the court was deciding the narrower question of whether or not the State’s Attorney was subject to FOIA. The decisive factor in answering that question, the court held, was the structure of the state constitution. Every constitution in the state’s history that has provided for State’s Attorneys at all has created the office in the judicial article of the constitution, the court pointed out. The court also noted that in another context, the legislature has described the State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor as “a judicial agency of state government.” 725 ILCS 210/3. From this, the court concluded that the term “judicial” is broader than the term “judicial power,” which is limited to the courts themselves. Under the circumstances, the court declined to infer that the legislature intended to extend FOIA to State’s Attorneys’ offices and affirmed the judgments of dismissal.

Before the Appellate Court, the plaintiff attempted without success to broaden the scope of the debate by arguing that the issue presented turns not on a mere issue of statutory construction, but on the more fundamental question of the nature of the State’s Attorney’s office. In support of that argument, the plaintiff pointed to several separation-of-powers cases and even to the Separation of Powers clause of the state constitution. Now that the plaintiff’s petition for leave to appeal has been allowed by the Supreme Court, it will be interesting to see whether the case is ultimately decided on this broader grounds, or the Court sticks with the narrower question framed by the Appellate Court.

We expect Nelson to be decided in six to eight months.

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