Based upon the oral argument during the recently-concluded January term, it is not clear what the Illinois Supreme Court is likely to decide in Nelson v. The Office of the Kendall County State’s Attorney. Nelson raises a deceptively simple issue: are the States’ Attorneys’ offices subject to the state Freedom of Information Act? Our detailed summary of the facts and lower court decisions in Nelson is here. The video of the argument is available here.
The plaintiff filed separate complaints against the County and the office of the State’s Attorney, seeking injunctions requiring disclosure of certain emails which he had demanded in FOIA requests. Both actions were dismissed; according to the Circuit Court, the County couldn’t be required to turn over the State’s Attorney’s records, and the State’s Attorney wasn’t subject to FOIA in the first place.
Here’s how Illinois’ FOIA works. Every "public body" is required to make public records available on request for inspection, subject to numerous exceptions. If the person asking gets turned down, he or she can go to the Attorney General’s office, or sue in circuit court. A decision from the AG’s Public Access Counselor goes straight to the Appellate Court for review as a final administrative decision. The Circuit Court, on the other hand, reviews the matter de novo. A "public body" is defined as "all legislative, executive, administrative or advisory bodies" of the state. Therefore, "judicial bodies" are not subject to the Act.
In affirming the Circuit Court, the Second District made it clear it wasn’t deciding whether the State’s Attorney was in fact part of the judicial branch of government. Rather, it was merely deciding whether the State’s Attorney was subject to FOIA. The answer to that was no, the Court held, largely based on the fact that the state constitution creates the office in the judicial article. The court cited the State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor Act, 725 ILCS 210/3, for the proposition that the legislature intends the term "judicial body" to mean something broader than "judicial power."
Before the Supreme Court, counsel for the plaintiff argued that the issue at hand was simply whether the State’s Attorney was subject to the FOIA. The State’s Attorney was a member of the Executive Branch, counsel argued. Justice Thomas asked whether the Appellate Court had based its analysis on the proposition that the State’s Attorney office is judicial, or something different. Counsel answered that the Court had held that inclusion of the office in the judicial article of the constitution was determinative. Justice Thomas asked whether it was more of a public policy analysis, as opposed to a finding about the legislature’s intent. Counsel responded that the Appellate Court had first looked at the constitution, and then at the State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor’s Act. Justice Theis noted that the Appellate Prosecutors’ Act described the office as a "judicial agency of state government," and asked counsel what that meant. Counsel responded that the statute didn’t mean much for the meaning of an FOIA passed 27 years earlier. Justice Theis asked why the legislature would have chosen such language given the cases holding that the State’s Attorney is an executive branch agency. Counsel responded that if the legislature had intended to decide the scope of FOIA, it would have said that the State’s Attorney is not subject to FOIA. Counsel also noted the Open Meetings Act, which provides that information gathered by a State’s Attorney in investigating a possible violation is not subject to FOIA. Why would the legislature have included such a provision if the State’s Attorney’s office were exempt from FOIA, counsel asked. Chief Justice Garman asked whether the statue was ambiguous. Counsel argued that the State’s Attorney’s office was unambiguously included in the statute. The Chief Justice asked whether it was appropriate to consider whether the emails at issue related to court proceedings. Counsel answered that the statutory exemptions addressed the relevance of that. Justice Karmeier asked whether counsel was suggesting that the matter be resolved on the basis of public policy, or whether it was just a question of whether the State’s Attorney is or is not part of the judiciary. Counsel answered that policy has to play a part as the statute is analyzed. Justice Thomas suggested that the Appellate Court’s decision had been based on policy – essentially, a holding that the court would not extend FOIA to State’s Attorneys unless the legislature made it clear that State’s Attorneys were covered. Counsel agreed that that was certainly the inference. Justice Thomas noted that counsel saw the policy argument going the other way. Counsel answered that if the Court doesn’t overturn the Appellate Court’s holding, the result would be a State’s Attorney’s office immune to public scrutiny.
Counsel for the State’s Attorney’s office began by arguing that the placement of the State’s Attorney in the judicial article of the state constitution was dispositive. Justice Thomas asked whether that was so even in light of the Court’s case law holding that the State’s Attorney’s office is executive in nature. Counsel answered that the State’s Attorney certainly performed executive functions, but the nature of the office’s functions was not the test. Counsel argued that the Judicial Inquiry Board, for example, was executive in its functions, but the Attorney General had nevertheless opined that the Board was exempt from FOIA because of its placement in the constitution. Justice Theis pointed out that previous decisions of the Appellate Court had suggested that the FOIA was ambiguous. Counsel responded that the statute used the term "judicial body" rather than "judiciary," and argued again that the placement of the State’s Attorney’s office in the judicial article of the constitution was dispositive. Justice Theis pointed out that counsel argued that the court shouldn’t go beyond the four corners of the statute, but counsel nevertheless wanted the court to look to the constitution. For purposes of understanding what a judicial body is, counsel answered, the court should look beyond the statute. Justice Theis asked whether the court should look at the legislative history. Counsel responded that the opinion of a single representative should not carry much weight. Justice Burke asked whether FOIA should be applied liberally in favor of disclosure. Counsel answered that the prior question was whether the statute applied in the first place — for example, while there might be instances in which there are public policy arguments for disclosure of judiciary records, it made no difference since the judiciary simply isn’t subject to the FOIA. Justice Thomas asked, since the statute applies to all executive, legislative, and so on, what the court should do with its cases saying the State’s Attorney’s office is executive. Counsel answered that "executive branch," "executive body" and "executive function" all meant different things. Because of how the legislature defined a "public body," it was not a conflict to say that State’s Attorney’s offices were judicial bodies serving almost exclusively executive functions. It was up to the legislature, counsel argued, to change that. Chief Justice Garman asked whether the court needed to consider what if any judicial role the State’s Attorney played. Counsel again argued that the office’s placement in the constitution was dispositive.
Counsel for the County briefly followed, arguing for a rule that public bodies need not disclose records they are not the primary source for. Counsel argued that the statute was clear, and what was needed was a strong statement from the court to deter unnecessary litigation.
In rebuttal, counsel for the plaintiff argued that the State’s Attorney’s placement in the judicial article of the constitution was only a matter of salaries and selection; it added nothing to the argument. Counsel argued that there are statutes addressing the concerns raised by the County.
We expect Nelson to be decided in four to six months.