The Illinois Supreme Court has ordered the Ameren eminent domain cases against 34 local landowners back to the circuit court.
“We got a decision we are not happy with,” said attorney Craig Smith, who represents most of the landowners trying to keep Ameren from building a high-voltage transmission line across their properties.
Smith described the high court’s decision as narrow with a ruling the circuit court lacked jurisdiction to make a constitutional decision given the parameters of the matter before it.
In September 2017, Judge Craig DeArmond found the Illinois Public Utilities Act unconstitutional because it does not protect due process for property owners facing the seizure of private property under eminent domain. That was a step too far according to the state supreme court.
The ruling states the Illinois Constitution limits the jurisdiction of the courts when challenges are made regarding decisions by administrative bodies. The Illinois Commerce Commission granted Ameren the authority to proceed under eminent domain, and the landowners challenged that action because they were not advised their property was under consideration as part of the route for the power line.
It was argued before DeArmond, and also Judge James Glenn, the lack of adequate notice to challenge Ameren in front of the ICC commissioners was a denial of due process as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
“It means the lower court did not have the jurisdiction to make a Constitutional decision,” said Smith. “He (DeArmond) did have jurisdiction to hear the eminent domain challenge, but he didn’t have jurisdiction beyond that.”
When DeArmond found the Public Utilities Act unconstitutional on its face he also dismissed the eminent domain actions against the local landowners and Ameren appealed to the supreme court. Following the high court’s Oct. 18 ruling, the eminent domain issue has renewed life.
“It was remanded back to the Edgar and Clark County courts to go forward with eminent domain,” said Smith. “When it comes back it will just be for eminent domain.”
He plans to meet with his clients during the coming week to determine what they want to do and what the next step of opposition is. He acknowledged losing the ability to argue due process and a constitutional right is a severe blow.
“It is a major setback,” Smith said. “We are disappointed. The court didn’t even discuss due process.”
There is an option to petition the supreme court to reconsider the decision but that has little chance of success given it was a near unanimous decision. Justice Rita Garman concurred with the majority’s decision to send the case back for eminent domain but she expressed reservations about the notion that administrative decisions, or even a law passed by the legislature, strips a circuit court of jurisdiction to consider the constitutionality of issues.
Justice Thomas Kilbride also largely concurred with the overall decision but found it troubling the decision denies the landowners a way to appeal the administrative decision. He further started the landowners are entitled to have the court address an issue of deprivation of due process.
Smith also said there is an option to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene but noted that is even a more remote possibility than getting the Illinois high court to reconsider.
The decision is a blow to the local landowners but Smith noted some good has come from the effort. The case revealed serious defects with the Illinois Public Utilities Act and the legislature amended the law to make sure due process is protected for property owners. The amended law, however, is not retroactive.
“We have the greatest respect for the Illinois Supreme Court, but this is a hard decision to take,” said Smith. “There are always winners and losers. We thought we had a good argument, but the court didn’t agree with us.”