While society perceptively changes over decades, the Illinois Supreme Court made clear this week in Yakich v. Aulds that lower tribunals are not vested with the authority to mirror those changes by overruling the High Court’s opinions, even those opinions dating back to a bygone era of the 1970s. Yakich v. Aulds, 2019 IL 123667, ¶13. Indeed, the opinion clearly affirms that the Court is the only Court that may overrule or modify its opinions. Id.

Yakich involved two unmarried parents, a college-bound daughter, and a 1997 agreed order that did not address who would pay for their daughter’s college expenses. Id. at ¶3. The mother, Rosemary Aulds, filed a contribution petition under section 513 of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (the Act) requesting that the father, Charles Yakich, be ordered to pay an equitable share of their daughter’s college expenses. Even though he had the finances to support his daughter’s college education, Charles objected to paying because he had not been involved in the college selection process. Id.

Titled “Education Expenses for a Non-minor Child,” section 513 of the Act, states that the court may award sums of money “out of the property and income of either or both parties…as equity may require, for the educational expenses of any child of the parties.” 750 ILCS 5/513(a) (West 2018).

Rewind to 1978: the days of tape recorders, typewriters, lower divorce rates and fewer single family households…

In 1978, section 513 survived an equal protection challenge in Kujawinski v. Kujawinski. Id. at ¶12. Using a rational basis analysis, the IL Supreme Court upheld section 513 as constitutional finding that “children of unmarried parents faced more disadvantages and were less likely to receive financial help with college from their parents than children of married parents.” Id. at ¶7.

As a result, where a child’s parents are not married to one another, the courts have been authorized to award sums of money to pay for that child’s education. By contrast, as the trial court in Yakich noted, parents who are married are not obliged to pay for their children’s college education and, thus, can influence where their children go to school. Id. at 4.

Kujawinski is no stranger to the legal system having been cited 141 times since its holding by both the Illinois and federal judiciaries and in numerous law journal and law review articles.

Fast forward to 2019: the days of apps, laptops, higher divorce rates and more nontraditional families…

Initially the trial court granted Rosemary Aulds’ petition and ordered each parent to pay 40% of their daughter’s forthcoming college expenses and the daughter to pay the remainder. Charles Yakich challenged section 513 on equal protection grounds ultimately arguing that having him make payments “‘usurped’ his ‘parental rights in steering his adult daughter to an appropriate college.’” Id. at ¶ 6. Charles argued Kujawinski did not apply because of “the subsequent increase in the number of nontraditional families,” since 1978 and that section 513 unconstitutionally prevented him, an unmarried parent, from “using his ‘purse strings’ to influence his daughter’s decisions.” Id.

Before holding Kujawinski unconstitutional, the trial court noted that Illinois’s view was in the minority and that some states had struck down as unconstitutional laws that require parental contributions to college expenses. Id. at ¶ 7. The trial court relied on the reasoning of a 1995 Pennsylvania case, Curtis v. Kline, in which that state’s Supreme Court found its similar statute in violation of the equal protection clause. Id. at ¶ 12. Using Curtis the trial court held that “‘the social changes that have occurred since 1978 make the rational basis cited in Kujawinski no longer tenable. Further, there is no apparent rational basis for the statute other than that cited in Kujawinski.’” Id. The trial court found that section 513, as applied, violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution and it vacated its prior college expenses order. Id. at ¶ 7.

Cue Up IL Supreme Court: a moment of serious error by the lower court

The Illinois Supreme Court pushed back holding that the trial court committed “serious error” by not applying Kujawinski, a holding that “remains directly on point” to the case at hand. Id. at 13. The Court made clear that lower courts are not to disturb the holdings of the High Court “regardless of the impact of any societal evolution that may have occurred.” Id. To make the matter clear, the Court explained that the lower tribunals “are bound to apply this court’s precedent…under the fundamental principle of stare decisis.” Id. The Court noted that while the lower courts are, “[f]ree to question the continued vitality of Kujawinski, it lacks the authority to declare that precedent a dead letter.” Id., citing Blumenthal v. Brewer, 2016 IL 118781, ¶ 61.

Nutshell Summary: stare decisis is as alive and kicking, regardless of age or era

The IL Supreme Court’s sharp rebuke of the trial court’s finding reinforces the principle of stare decisis and its deeply imbedded role in our jurisprudence. Without saying so, the Court’s decision also reinforces the tools that are in place to change law: using the legislature or taking a case through the proper channels of the legal system with creative argument.

In the end, the Court vacated the trial court’s ruling and remanded the cause back to the trial court. Id. at 15. So stay tuned, it is possible that we haven’t heard the last of Yakich and the viability of section 513.