Argument Report: Illinois Supreme Court Debates School Security Officers’ Right to Strike

On the final argument day of the May term, the Illinois Supreme heard The Board of Education of Peoria School District No. 150 v. The Peoria Federation of Support Staff, Security/Policemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association No. 114. Board of Education involves two questions: the constitutionality of a recent amendment to the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act relating to certain public employees’ right to strike, and the proper state administrative board to take jurisdiction over an unfair labor practice claim. Our detailed preview of the facts and lower court holding in Board of Education is here. The video and audio of the argument is available here.

According to the complaint, the plaintiff is the only school district in Illinois which employs its own security officers. When the latest union contract expired in mid-2010, disputes arose over the timing of the negotiations and over the state law which governed discussions.

The Public Labor Relations Act regulates labor relations between most public-sector employees and their employers. School districts and their employees are (for the most part) governed by the Educational Labor Relations Act. In 2010, the legislature amended the PLRB to bring "a school district in the employment of peace officers in its own police department in existence on the effective date of this amendatory act" back within the coverage of the Act. Because the class opened and closed on a single day, the 2010 amendment allegedly applies to one and only one school district — Peoria. This potentially makes a considerable difference, since security personnel, peace officers and firefighters subject to the PLRA are prohibited from striking. Employees subject to the ELRA are, on the other hand, generally allowed to strike.

The plaintiff school district filed a two-count complaint, seeking declarations that (1) the 2010 amendment to the PLRA was unconstitutional special legislation; and (2) its negotiations with the security officers’ union was governed by the ELRA. The Circuit Court dismissed for failure to state a claim, but the Appellate Court reversed. According to the Appellate Court, the 2010 amendment lacked a rational basis because the class of school districts subject to the amendment opened and closed on a single day. The Court further held that the plaintiff’s second claim was analogous to a challenge to the board’s jurisdiction, and therefore exempt from the requirement to exhaust administrative remedies.

Counsel for the administrative boards led off the argument. Justice Karmeier asked counsel whether the determination of whether the security officers were subject to the PLRA should be made by the Labor Relations Board, making the Appellate Court’s remand to the Circuit Court for that determination improper. Counsel agreed that it should. Justice Karmeier asked whether the Boards’ contention was that the constitutional challenge should be made before the Boards. Counsel responded that if the employees were not covered by the Act, the Appellate Court would not need to address constitutionality. Justice Karmeier asked whether the issue of constitutionality was properly before the Court, and if the 2010 amendment was unconstitutional, was the case concluded. Counsel responded that since there is no determination of what the employees at issue do, the issue of constitutionality might not be necessary for anyone to reach. The issues of what the employees do, what their job is, what their employment circumstances are, and applying those findings to the Act fall squarely within the Boards’ expertise. Justice Karmeier asked counsel whether the Boards were asking that the case be sent back for administrative determination, and once that’s done, the case could go to court for a finding of constitutionality. Counsel answered that the Circuit Court should not be determining whether the security officers were public employees. Justice Thomas pointed out that the School District seemed to be urging the Court to use its supervisory authority to decide the constitutional issue, whereas if the Court send the matter back for fact-finding, it wouldn’t be deciding anything. Counsel agreed that instead of going through an orderly procedure, the case had arrived in an unusual procedural setting. Chief Justice Kilbride pointed out that since the Appellate Court hadn’t actually reached the constitutional question, the issue wasn’t squarely before the Court, and counsel agreed.

Counsel for the union followed, and encouraged the Court to act on the question of constitutionality. Justice Karmeier asked whether the fact that the legislature had made it impossible for any other school district to ever fall within the class created by the amendment created a constitutional concern. Counsel responded that it did not pursuant to Elementary School District No. 159 v. Schiller.

Counsel for the School District argued that the main issue before the Court was whether the 2010 amendment was special legislation. Justice Freeman commented that the question of whether the potentially effected employees were peace officers seemed to be fact based, falling within the expertise of the Labor Relations Board. Counsel responded that there was no genuine dispute as to whether the employees were peace officers. Chief Justice Kilbride asked counsel whether he was arguing that the School District had no authority to hire the officers. Counsel responded that the issue wasn’t authority, but rather that the employees weren’t police officers under the Act, meaning that jurisdiction moved to the Educational Labor Relations Board. Justice Karmeier asked whether counsel was arguing that the School District lacked authority to handle police officers, and therefore the employees couldn’t be police officers by definition, making the issue not a genuine dispute of fact. Counsel agreed that the matter was a legal issue. Justice Theis asked what select group was relevant to the constitutional question. Counsel responded that the relevant group was peace officers employed by a school district on the effective date of the act. Justice Theis asked whether the relevant group was the police officers of the district, and counsel answered that the relevant group was the school district. Justice Theis asked how the legislation favored the school district. Counsel responded that it was because the security officers couldn’t strike. Justice Theis asked how that favored the district. Counsel answered that it favored the district because other districts would have to endure a strike of their security officers, creating an issue of public safety. Justice Theis suggested that there wouldn’t be a problem where the legislature found that arbitration and the right to strike were equivalent, but counsel answered that they weren’t. Justice Theis asked how one got around the problem that the legislature had said they are equivalent; counsel answered that the legislature hadn’t, the Attorney General had found they were. Justice Burke asked whether the union benefited by being subject to the Labor Relations Board rather that the Educational Labor Relations Board, and counsel responded that they did, since arbitration favors a smaller group. Justice Freeman pointed out again that the legislature had found that arbitration was comparable to the right to strike, and wondered how the Court could override that determination. Counsel responded that the legislature had made no such determination, and that the Act was special legislation. Justice Theis suggested that 5 ILCS 315/2 included such a determination. Counsel argued that the legislature had found the determinations alternatives, not equivalent.

Counsel for the Boards began rebuttal arguments. Justice Karmeier pointed out that if the Court either upheld the Act, or refused to address the issue, opposing counsel argued that the question of whether the employees were police officers was one of law. Counsel responded that there was no factual record of what the officers did.

Counsel for the union concluded the argument. Justice Thomas asked whether any case law held that a statute could be unconstitutional special legislation because it conferred a benefit that the plaintiff didn’t want. Counsel responded that there was none, so far as he was aware. Justice Garman asked what the significance was of the legislation closing the class the day it was passed – if the legislature had public interests at heart, what would justify that statute? Counsel responded that there was nothing in the statute indicating that the legislature intended to close the class on that date.