The Illinois Supreme Court handed down one opinion on Wednesday, February 26. In Burns v. Municipal Officers Electoral Board, the court upheld the constitutionality of a provision of the Illinois Municipal Code restricting the power of home rule municipalities to impose term limits.

Burns v. The Municipal Officers Electoral Board of Elk Grove Village

By Karen Kies DeGrand, Donohue Brown Mathewson & Smyth LLC

In an expedited appeal affecting the upcoming primary election, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a provision of the Illinois Municipal Code restricting the power of home rule municipalities to impose term limits. The court addressed the issue in the context of a proposed referendum inquiring whether the Elk Grove Village electorate wished to impose term limits on two elected officers of Elk Grove Village, its village president (mayor), and village trustee.

Timothy Burns led the effort to place the proposal on the March 17, 2020 general primary election ballot; Elk Grove voter Benjamin Lee filed an objection to Burns’ petition submitted to the local election board. If passed, the referendum would bar individuals from “seeking nomination to, or to hold, elected office” in Elk Grove Village, a home rule municipality, “where that person has held the same elected office for two (2) or more consecutive, four (4) year terms.” Lee contended that section 3.1-10-17 of the Municipal Code prohibited the referendum, which counted prior service as village president or village trustee in determining eligibility to seek another term of office. Section 3.1-10-17 provides, in part, that term limits may be imposed only prospectively and elective “office held prior to the effective date of any term limit imposed by a municipality shall not prohibit a person otherwise eligible from running for or holding elective office in that municipality.” 65 ILCS 5/3.1-10-17(a).

Burns argued that section 3.1-10-17 was unconstitutional. Noting the limited scope of the board’s authority, which required it to accept the statute’s validity, the election board denied Burns’ request to place the referendum on the ballot. Burns, however, prevailed in his constitutionality challenge when he sought circuit court review of the board’s decision. The circuit court ruled that the statute unlawfully applied retroactively to term limit referenda previously approved in other municipalities since November, 2016. In the circuit court’s view, the unlawful provisions could not be severed from the remainder of the statute.

The Supreme Court held that Burns’ challenge of section 3.1-10-17 rested on an errant reading of article VII, section 6(f) of the Illinois Constitution, which addresses a home rule municipality’s selection of officers and terms of office. The court explained that, reading sections 6(f), 6(h) and 6(i) together, the constitution permits the General Assembly to limit the powers of a home rule unit “so long as it does so expressly”—and here, it did. Consequently, the valid term limits provision barred the referendum.

The Supreme Court declined to address another point Burns raised, whether the statute implicated voters’ constitutional rights as applied to term limit referenda previously passed in other municipalities. Invoking a fundamental rule of constitutional law, the court observed that it would not determine the constitutionality of a provision that does not affect the parties before the court. Here, the issue of prior referenda did not affect the rights of Elk Grove Village or its voters. Accordingly, the supreme court reversed the circuit court’s judgment, vacated the court’s ruling as to provisions that did not affect the parties, and affirmed the electoral board’s decision to refuse Burns’ request to place the referendum on the ballot.