In the vast majority of cases, the Illinois Supreme Court is in complete control of what cases wind up on its docket – parties file a petition for leave to appeal, and the Court allows it or doesn’t in the exercise of its “sound judicial discretion.”
But there’s one instance in which, curiously enough, the Court’s docket is in control of the intermediate Appellate Courts. If an Appellate Court decides to grant a “certificate of importance” under Rule 316, then appeal lies to the Supreme Court “as a matter of right” pursuant to the Illinois Constitution. All that’s required is for the Appellate Court to certify that the matter is of “such importance that the case should be decided” by the highest court in the state.
On December 30, the Supreme Court filed its opinion in Johnson v. Ames, a case relating to a voter referendum which appeared on the ballot in November 2016 seeking to impose term limits on the President of the Village of Broadview. Shortly after the referendum petition was filed, an objection was filed. The Village Electoral Board voted to invalidate the referendum as vague and ambiguous, finding that it was unclear whether the term limits would apply retroactively – in other words, whether an official who was already on his or her second term would be barred from running again, or whether it merely limited terms after the effective date. The referendum sponsor sought judicial review in the Circuit Court. The trial court reversed, finding that the referendum was not ambiguous, and the Appellate Court affirmed. The objector filed a petition for leave to appeal with the Supreme Court, which was denied by the Supreme Court on November 8. Six days after the PLA was denied, the Appellate Court filed a certificate of importance asking the Supreme Court to decide whether the referendum was vague. Three days later, the Supreme Court summarily affirmed the Appellate Court, promising an opinion at a later date.
The Court began by pointing out that the certificate of importance was a legal nullity, since the Appellate Court filed it after the objector had already filed a PLA in the Supreme Court, divesting the Appellate Court of jurisdiction. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court chose to exercise its supervisory authority and explain its affirmance.
The Supreme Court explained that the plain language of the referendum provided that term limits would apply to anyone who sought election in April 2017 or after who has “been previously elected” to that office for two terms. When read in its entirety, the language used was sufficiently clear to understand what the voters would be voting on, even without an express statement of the referendum’s temporal reach. Although the objector “suggests alternative variations that he asserts are clearer, a valid referendum need not be presented in optimal form,” according to the Court. “We hold that the referendum at issue in this case meets that basic standard.”
Justice Thomas added a short special concurrence. He noted that Rule 316 certificates of importance are one of the relatively few vehicles for getting a case on the Court’s docket without its agreement. But Johnson didn’t require the Court to construe the constitution or a statute, to resolve an urgent conflict between the districts of the Appellate Court, or “to correct any errant exercise of judicial power.” Rather, “it requires this court only to read and interpret a local ballot initiative that was drafted locally, applies locally, and almost certainly will never appear again in the same form on any ballot anywhere.” That, Justice Thomas argued, was “the very opposite of ‘a question of such importance that the case should be decided by the Supreme Court.'” Justice Thomas closed by urging the Appellate Courts to exercise their Rule 316 power “with the restraint, sobriety, and cautious discretion it deserves.”