State court litigation challenging Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s exercise of his emergency powers has followed an unmistakably disturbing pattern.
Litigants — representing everyone from aggrieved legislators, business owners and county sheriffs — file a lawsuit in state court asking that one of Pritzker’s coronavirus lockdown orders be overturned because he’s exercising nonexistent legal authority.
Local judges, either putting their fingers in the air or failing to adequately study the issue, strike down Pritzker’s orders, sometimes accompanying their rulings with incendiary language denouncing Pritzker’s alleged tyranny.
Then, when Pritzker challenges the local judges’ decision, appeals courts reverse the trial judges and conclude that — yes, in fact — the governor is acting within his emergency statutory powers granted by the legislature.
It happened again this week, when a unanimous panel (Justices Lisa Holder-White, Robert Steigmann and John Turner) on the Fourth District Appellate Court in Springfield politely took Logan County Circuit Judge Jonathan Wright to the woodshed for issuing a flawed injunction ordering state prisons to accept transfers of sentenced prisoners being held in county jail.
Earlier this year, in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus, Pritzker barred the corrections department from accepting inmates transferred from local county jails.
That angered virtually all of Illinois’ 102 county sheriffs, who contended that they have neither the space nor the resources needed to fill their jails up with inmates who ought to be in state prison.
They filed suit in Logan County, where in early August Wright ruled in the sheriff’s favor.
“The governor did not have the authority to direct DOC to stop accepting transfers from Illinois county jails under the Illinois Emergency Management Agency Act or otherwise,” Wright concluded.
In ruling that Pritzker lacked the authority to bar prisoner transfers, Wright cited “section 7(1)” as imposing on DOC as “substantive duty” to accept the transfers.
The appellate court, however, concluded Wright ignored “section 7(8),” which provided Pritzker the necessary authority to block transfers.
“Based on the plain language of the act, we find the governor did possess the authority to issue (his executive order). ... We look to section 7(8), where the governor is authorized to control ‘the movement of persons within the (disaster) area,’” the court wrote.
Pritzker initially banned transfer from county jails. After the sheriffs sued, he modified his orders to establish a transfer process establishing safeguards many sheriffs say they cannot meet. Pritzker also said the transfer process would operate solely at the discretion of the corrections department’s top management.
It was pretty clear from the beginning that Wright’s order was going nowhere. He denied granting the state a stay of his order pending appeal.
But the appellate court moved quickly to issue its own order staying Wright’s flawed decision. However, in the time between the judge granting his original order and the appellate court freezing it, sheriffs from across Illinois transferred roughly 2,000 of their sentenced inmates to DOC.
Champaign County was able to move 55 jail inmates to DOC.
There is no question that local jail officials are suffering under Pritzker’s edict because of the additional stress placed on their limited space and resources.
However, in issuing its stay of Wright’s order, the appellate court said the legal test is not “on whether the governor’s actions are unwise or unfair, but rather on whether the governor’s actions are authorized” by state law.
In seeking the court order striking down Pritzker’s inmate transfer ban, the sheriffs were required to meet four tests — a “clearly ascertained right in need of protection,” “irreparable injury in the absence of an injunction,” “no adequate remedy at law,” and, most important, “likelihood of success on the merits of the case.”
On that final point, Wright ruled Pritzker lacked the authority he claimed to have while the appellate court ruled Wright simply misinterpreted the emergency authority state law gives the governor.
Consequently, the appellate court said, “the trial court erred in granting the preliminary injunction.”
That’s been the pattern across the state, where trial judges have responded to lawsuits challenging Pritzker’s unpopular restrictions with favorable decisions don’t last long on appeal.
This case is not over. The appellate court sent the case back to Logan County “for further proceedings” that won’t amount too much now that the trial judge has receive a tutorial on statutory interpretation.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at email@example.com or 217-351-5369.