by James G. Wargo
The Illinois Appellate Court recently upheld the constitutionality of the term-limits provision of the Illinois Municipal Code as applied to a 2016 referendum approved by the voters of the Village of Broadview, limiting the number of terms a person may serve as village president.
In Buchanan v. Jones, 2012 IL App (1st) 210169, the court was faced with interpreting the legal effect of the term limits provision in Section 3.1-10-17 of the Illinois Municipal Code on a previously approved term limits referendum by the residents of the Village of Broadview. (65 ILCS 5/3.1-10-17) That section of the Municipal Code was added July 19, 2019, while the referendum was approved at the November 8, 2016 General Election. Section 3.1-10-17 provides that the imposition of term limits by referendum, ordinance, or otherwise on elected municipal officials must be prospective only. It specifically applies to all term limits imposed by municipalities approved on or after November 8, 2016.
Prior to the decision in Buchanan, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Section 3.1-10-17 as applied to a 2020 proposed referendum but did not rule on its application to earlier adopted term limits referenda. Burns v. Municipal Officers Electoral Board of the Village of Elk Grove Village, 2020 IL 125714. Burns involved a challenge to a petition seeking to place a referendum question on the election ballot at the March 17, 2020 General Primary Election. The proposed referendum provided that “no person shall be eligible to seek nomination or election to, or to hold elected office in the Village of Elk Grove Village where that person has held the same elected office for two (2) or more consecutive, four (4) year terms.”
An objection petition to the proposed referendum was filed with the Village’s electoral board. The electoral board sustained the objection on the grounds that the petition was in violation of Section 3.1-10-7. On judicial review, the circuit court declared Section 3.1-10-17 unconstitutional because the statute “unlawfully applied retroactively to term limits referenda that had already been approved by the voters in other municipalities since 2016.”
On direct appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, the court upheld the constitutionality of Section 3.1-10-17 and affirmed the electoral board’s decision that the proposed referendum was invalid. However, the court did not render an opinion as to the retroactive application of Section 3.1-10-17 and left open possible constitutional challenges to any term limits referenda passed by other municipalities from November 8, 2016 to July 19, 2019.
That is where Buchanan comes in. In that case, a registered voter filed an objection petition to Sherman Jones’ nomination papers for the office of Village President for the Village of Broadview. The objection was predicated on a November 8, 2016 referendum (“2016 Referendum”) approved by the voters that “no person shall be eligible to seek election to or hold the office of Village President where that person has been previously elected to the office of Village President of the Village of Broadview for two (2) consecutive full four (4) year terms.” The objector argued that Jones was not eligible to be a candidate pursuant to the 2016 Referendum since he had previously been elected Village President for two terms prior to the enactment of the referendum.
The Village’s electoral board dismissed the objection and ordered Jones’ name to appear on the ballot at the April 6, 2021 Consolidated Election. The electoral board found that any terms served by Jones prior to the approval of the 2016 Referendum could not be used to determine his eligibility to run for Village president at the upcoming election.
On judicial review, the circuit court affirmed the electoral board’s decision finding Section 3.1-10-17 of the Illinois Municipal Code to be constitutional. The objector filed an expedited appeal to the appellate court arguing that Section 3.1-10-17 impermissibly nullified the voter’s approval of the 2016 Referendum.
On appeal, the First District Appellate Court upheld the constitutionality of Section 3.1-10-17 as to Broadview’s 2016 Referendum. In applying the statutory language to the 2016 Referendum, the court noted that the referendum was “silent as to whether service as village president prior to the referendum’s adoption is to be considered in the calculation of consecutive terms.” In light of this silence, the court concluded that Section 3.1-10-17(a) requires the imposition of term limits under the referendum to be applied prospectively. The court reasoned that Section 3.1-10-17 “merely places a limitation on the manner in which term limits are calculated in elections taking place” after the statute’s effective date on July 19, 2019.