The Illinois Supreme Court has been busy, and while most of the news coverage has been on wills and religion, sex offenders, and the death penalty, let's not forget another ruling that came down this week. In Gardner v Mullins, a unanimous court ruled that units of government cannot manipulate the length of time an appointee serves in elected office in order to avoid the voters. (download a pdf) We applaud the Court for preserving the integrity of the ballot.
The case arose after the death of an elected member of the Winnebago County Board. Mary Ann Aiello's term was to end on December 6, 2010. Her death on June 26, 2008 cut that short, leaving just over 29 months remaining on her term. According to state law, partial terms of more than 28 months can be filled by appointment only until the next General Election which, in this instance, would have been in November, 2008. The Winnebago County Board, however, did not appoint a successor until two months had elapsed, so that only 27 months remained in the term. That appointee then claimed that he did not have to stand for election until 2010.
The ability to appoint members to elected bodies is one of the more delicate powers given to public officials. The goal is to ensure a modicum of public representation until the voters can voice their desires. Special elections can be costly and generally draw low voter turnout; for many offices, Illinois policy is to allow for interim appointments until the next regular election.
But the power can be and has been abused. Most political observers can cite an instance or three of the swapping of one candidate for another after the primary or the substitution of one official for another after the election, all without asking the voters if they approve of the change. Usually, there is no recourse when the new official lacks credibility, except to wait for the next election.
In this case, the Supreme Court has narrowed the circumstances where a public body can manipulate the process to ensure that a favored person becomes a public official. By ruling that the remaining time on the ballot, which determined how soon voters are consulted, is calculated from the start of the vacancy and not the time of the appointment, the Court has appropriately make clear that voters should be consulted whenever possible, and not merely when convenient for the appointers. The unanimity of the ruling, written by Justice Garman, underscores this important point.