In the closing days of the recently concluded May term of the Illinois Supreme Court, the Court opened up the State’s Attorneys around the state to increased public scrutiny. In an opinion by Justice Lloyd Karmeier for a unanimous Court, the Justices held in Nelson v. County of Kendall that the offices of the State’s Attorneys are subject to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (5 ILCS 140/1). Our detailed preview of the facts and lower court holdings in Nelson is here. Our report on the oral argument is here.

The plaintiff in Nelson is – like many FOIA requesting parties – an employee of a media company. In the fall of 2010, he submitted a FOIA request to Kendall County, asking to inspect and copy all emails and attachments sent and received by two county employees. The County referred the plaintiff to the State’s Attorney, saying he had custody of the records. The plaintiff challenged that claim, asserting that the County had copies of all the documents as well, and was obligated to produce them. The County responded that it needed to consult with “another public body” with an interest in the request, and promised to get back to the plaintiff. When it failed to do so, the plaintiff put the matter before the Public Access Counselor in the Attorney General’s office. The Public Access Counselor declined to intervene, saying that the plaintiff had earlier submitted an identical request to the Kendall County State’s Attorney and received a response.

So the plaintiff sued. The County moved to dismiss, and the State’s Attorney intervened and moved to dismiss as well. While all that was going on, the plaintiff submitted a new FOIA request to the State’s Attorney, seeking the same emails from the same two employees, plus additional material involving two employees of the State’s Attorney’s office – including the State’s Attorney himself. The State’s Attorney’s office rejected this second request on the grounds that the State’s Attorney’s office was part of the judicial branch of the state government and therefore exempt from FOIA, which applies only to “legislative, executive, administrative [and] advisory bodies” of the State. Besides, the office noted, this was the plaintiff’s third request, and the State’s Attorney had already produced over 1,000 pages of material.

So the plaintiff sued again, this time naming only the State’s Attorney’s office. The State’s Attorney moved to dismiss that action as well, repeating its claim that it was part of the judicial branch, and therefore not a “public body” within the meaning of FOIA. Ultimately, the circuit dismissed both actions in separate orders, holding that (1) the documents belonged to the State’s Attorney’s office, not the County, and the County could not be compelled to produce over the State’s Attorney’s objections; and (2) the State’s Attorney was part of the judicial branch, and therefore completely exempt from FOIA.

The plaintiff appealed only with respect to the State’s Attorney’s office, challenging the view that the office was exempt from FOIA. The Second District affirmed the circuit court.

The Supreme Court reversed. The Court’s holding is simply stated: (1) a “public body” under FOIA includes all executive bodies of the State; (2) the State’s Attorney exercises executive powers and is generally considered to be part of the executive branch; so (3) the State’s Attorney is subject to FOIA.

The Court flatly rejected the notion that the State’s Attorney was part of the judicial branch. That was so, the theory went, because the method of selection, qualifications for office and compensation of the State’s Attorney are all set forth in the Judicial Article of the state constitution. The Supreme Court had earlier relied upon that fact to holds that the State’s Attorneys were not subject to the provisions in the Executive Article relating to changes in compensation, but the Court said it had never suggested that the State’s Attorney was therefore part of the judicial branch. That suggestion was impossible to reconcile with the previous eighteen sections of the Judicial Article, which vested judicial power in “a Supreme Court, an Appellate Court and Circuit Courts.”

The Appellate Court had relied in coming to the opposite conclusion on a 2010 statutory amendment designating State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutors as “a judicial agency of state government.” Not good enough, the Supreme Court held – first, that statute related only to the Appellate Prosecutors, and second, it was far from clear that the legislature had the power to expand the definition of the judicial branch to include a new agency anyway.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Jim Linwood (no changes).