Our reports on the oral arguments of the Illinois Supreme Court’s May term continue with Keating v. City of Chicago. Keating poses an important question for Illinois motorists: are municipal red light ordinances constitutional? Our detailed summary of the facts and lower court holdings in Keating is here.

Chicago has had a red light ordinance since July 2003. By 2006, questions had arisen as to whether such ordinances were permitted by Illinois law regarding the powers of county and local governments. As a result, the state legislature passed an enabling act, specifically authorizing red light camera programs in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, Madison, McHenry, St. Clair and Will Counties. Although the 2003 ordinance has stayed in place in the years since, Chicago did not reenact its ordinance following the enabling act.

Most of the plaintiffs in Keating are registered vehicle owners who received red light violation citations from the City of Chicago. Plaintiffs’ challenge to the ordinance is built around two principal arguments: (1) that the City lacked home rule authority to enact the ordinance; and (2) that the enabling act was unconstitutional special legislation. The Circuit Court granted the City’s motion to dismiss, holding that two plaintiffs lacked standing, that the enabling act was not special legislation, and that the voluntary payment doctrine barred all claims since the plaintiffs had paid their fines.

On appeal, the plaintiffs focused on four arguments: (1) the enabling act is unconstitutional; (2) the ordinance was void in excess of home rule authority and the enabling act did not and could not legalize it; (3) even if the enabling act might otherwise have legalized the ordinance, the City failed to reenact it; and (4) the voluntary payment doctrine did not apply.

The home rule argument turns on an interesting question: does the red light ordinance relate to “the movement of vehicles,” or constitute an automated device “for the purpose of recording [a vehicle’s] speed”? If so, the ordinance is likely invalid, with or without the enabling act. Or does it merely “regulat[e] traffic by means of . . . traffic control signals,” which is within local authorities’ powers? The Appellate Court held that the ordinance did not relate to “the movement of vehicles,” and was therefore within the City’s home rule authority. The Court further held that limiting the ordinance to the most populous counties with the heaviest traffic was a reasonable limitation, meaning that the enabling act was not unconstitutional special legislation. Finally, the Court held that in view of the significant penalties attending non-payment, the plaintiffs’ payment of the fines did not waive their claim.

Counsel for the plaintiffs began with the initial issue: did the City of Chicago have the authority to enact its red light ordinance. Justice Thomas asked what was wrong with the argument that the ordinance is a supplement to, rather than an alternative to, the statewide Vehicle Code provisions. Counsel answered that it destroyed uniformity of enforcement in several ways, including by ticketing the owner rather than the driver, and by providing for administrative enforcement. Calling a red light camera’s photo a representation of a static moment in time doesn’t mean it doesn’t relate to the movement of the vehicle, counsel argued. The most frequent violation is failing to stop before entering the intersection – it’s not a violation by the owner. Counsel argued that it’s the lack of uniformity that makes the ordinance invalid. Justice Karmeier asked whether counsel objected to the concept of the owner paying rather than the alleged violator. Counsel answered that while the plaintiffs weren’t raising it as a separate issue, the plaintiffs think it’s indicative of a lack of uniformity.

Counsel then turned to the second issue, the enabling act. Counsel argued that the enabling act is both plainly local and creates a closed-end class of these eight counties. Justice Thomas asked whether anything in the legislative history suggested that the statute was designed to cover high traffic jurisdictions. Counsel answered that the legislative history cut in plaintiffs’ favor. In fact, the eight counties covered aren’t the most populous districts. The enabling act had been introduced twice as a general law, it didn’t pass, and then the legislature limited it to eight counties. Chief Justice Garman asked how the statute closes the class. Counsel answered that nobody else can become a covered county. The Chief asked about the argument that the eight counties were the highest traffic areas, and counsel answered that there was no rational connection between the small and large towns in the covered counties. Further, there were other areas with bigger problems which did not fall in the covered counties. Justice Theis cited to an earlier challenge to a fuel tax statute singling out three counties. Counsel answered that the case was distinguishable – the operation of that statute was at the town level, while the enabling act operated at the municipal level. Justice Theis asked why that mattered. Counsel explained that a statute had to be rational and non-local in order to be valid. The Court has refused in two different cases to approve statutes that classify by county but operate at the municipal level. Justice Karmeier asked whether the classification was rational because the eight counties were contiguous to large areas. Counsel answered that the plaintiffs have cited municipalities that are closer to Chicago, but not covered. There was no rational explanation for the division in the statute for a bill operating at the municipal level.

Counsel then briefly turned to the third issue, the proposition that even if the enabling act is constitutional, it couldn’t retroactively validate the 2003 Chicago ordinance. Counsel pointed out that while the enabling act said cities “may enact” a red-light ordinance, Chicago had never reenacted its three year old ordinance. Justice Thomas asked whether all plaintiffs were issued their tickets after the enabling act, and counsel agreed that was so. Justice Kilbride asked about the defendant’s claim that the ordinance had been reenacted. Counsel answered that the statute had been amended three times after the enabling act, but two had been purely cosmetic, and none had fully reenacted the ordinance.

Counsel for the City was up next. Rational basis was the proper standard of review for the enabling act, counsel argued; indeed, the Court would have to overrule a considerable body of precedent to apply anything else. Counsel insisted that there was a clear rational basis for the statute – these locations are different from the rest of the state. The legislature could have rationally concluded that these eight counties are where the risk of red light violations is greatest. Justice Thomas asked whether it was of any consequence that Winnebago County was omitted. Counsel argued that Winnebago County was reasonably distinguishable – it was not a Chicago collar county, nor was it close to St. Louis or Chicago. Counsel argued that Winnebago County may have an equilibrium between law enforcement resources and red light violations. Justice Theis noted that although counsel’s argument focused on county location and population, the plaintiff’s argument was that the law was operating at the municipality level – and some of the affected municipalities were very small. Counsel answered that even the small towns were differently situated because they were located in areas where municipalities were closely packed and heavily trafficked. The Chief Justice asked how it impacted the analysis that the ordinance is aimed at vehicle owners rather than drivers. Counsel answered that the ordinance was complementary to traditional enforcement, rather that substituting for enforcement through first-hand observation. Indeed, the statute cannot be applied when a police officer is present to observe the violation. Justice Karmeier asked whether an officer present to see a violation could simply ignore it and let the camera do its job. Counsel answered that the ordinance merely provides a defense if an officer is present – it doesn’t say that the officer does or doesn’t have to write the ticket. Counsel then turned to the issue of preemption. Preemption is an on-off switch, counsel argued. There was no express intent to preempt in the enabling act. According to counsel, the statute contains exemptions for local ordinances conflicting with the Vehicle Code. Since the ordinance doesn’t apply if an officer is present, there is no conflict and no preemption. Even if the ordinance was preempted when it was originally enacted in 2003, when the legislature passed the enabling act three years later, the ordinance sprang back to life.

In rebuttal, counsel for the plaintiffs argued that the Court has held that an invalid local statute or ordinance cannot be retroactively validated by a subsequent statute. Counsel for the City claims that the general assembly knew that home rule municipalities already had authority to enact red light ordinances, and that’s why the enabling act has a limited class of counties to which it applies. But if the power is inherent in home rule, why bother passing the enabling act at all?

Although there are high-profile exceptions – most recently with Kanerva last week – the Illinois Supreme Court tends to be somewhat skeptical of constitutional challenges. Nevertheless, the questioning pattern in Keating did not clearly signal the Court’s inclinations about the plaintiffs’ various constitutional challenges to the red-light ordinance.

We expect Keating to be decided in the mid-to-late fall.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Karoly Lorentey (no changes).