On May 13, 2015, the Illinois Appellate Court’s First District held that the former Board President of an Illinois high school district’s Board of Education was ineligible to fill a vacancy on the board following his previous removal from office. The court’s ruling in Williams v. Cook County Officers Electoral Board affirmed that a conviction for an infamous crime will disqualify a candidate from holding a position on a Board of Education.
In April 2009, Kenneth Williams was elected to the Thornton Township High District 205 Board of Education. He subsequently was reelected in April 2012, attaining the position of Board President. In 2014, the Illinois Appellate Court First District removed Mr. Williams from office, holding that a 1985 felony conviction in Indiana for forgery made him statutorily ineligible to hold the position of school board member under the Election Code (10 ILCS 5/1-1et seq.) and the School Code (105 ILCS 5/1-1 et seq.).
Under the School Code, a person is eligible to serve as an elected member of a board of education if he or she: (1) is a United States citizen; (2) is over the age of 18; (3) has been a resident in the district for at least one year immediately preceding the election; (4) is a registered voter; (5) is not a trustee; and (6) is not a child sex offender as defined by the Illinois Criminal Code of 2012. Additionally, under both the School Code and the Election Code, a school board office becomes vacant upon a conviction of an infamous crime.
In the 2014 decision, the Appellate Court found that Mr. Williams’ crime was infamous, based on past iterations of the Illinois Criminal Code and case law interpretations. The court accordingly found that Mr. Williams was ineligible to hold the office and that the statutes in question did not violate his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because the legislature had a rational basis for excluding felons convicted of infamous crimes from the legislatively-created office of school board member. As the Court stated in the 2014 opinion, “[w]hen read in their entirety, the provisions of the Election Code and School Code at issue establish an intent by the legislature to prevent individuals convicted of infamous crimes from holding offices of honor, trust and profit without an official pardon or restoration of rights.” Alvarez v. Williams, 2014 Ill. App. 133443 at ¶ 10 (December 10, 2014).
Mr. Williams filed the second lawsuit appealing a decision by the Cook County Officers Electoral Board to remove his name from the ballot for the April 2015 election. In the second lawsuit, Mr. Williams claimed, on a number of grounds, that he was statutorily qualified to seek and hold public office and that he was improperly removed from the ballot prior to the election. The Appellate Court again affirmed that Mr. Williams is statutorily ineligible to hold office and that his Fourteenth Amendment rights were not violated because there is a rational basis for the eligibility requirements for the office of school board member.
Additionally, the Court dismissed Mr. Williams’ argument that he was prematurely removed from the ballot. Mr. Williams had argued that he still had time to seek a pardon prior to the election but the Court held that a candidate must be eligible to seek an office at the time his nomination papers are filed. The Court also found that Mr. Williams’ Indiana expungement of his felony conviction did not have the legal effect of a pardon from the Governor of Illinois. Finally, the Court rejected Mr. Williams’ arguments alleging the Electoral Board exceeded its authority during the review process.
The Court’s ruling, along with its previous ruling removing Mr. Williams from office, confirms the Illinois General Assembly’s clear intent to prohibit those convicted of infamous crimes from ever holding an office, like school board, that directly concerns the education and care of children.