Lawmakers take on ‘venue shopping’ in constitutional lawsuits

By Peter Hancock & Hannah Meisel Capitol News Illinois

Litigation over COVID-19-related executive orders and assault weapons ban was filed in several of Illinois’ 102 counties, based on where various plaintiffs either lived or believed their constitutional rights were violated.

SPRINGFIELD – Democrats who control the General Assembly muscled through a last-minute measure that will require any constitutional challenge to state laws to be filed in either Cook or Sangamon counties.

The Illinois House on Thursday, May 25 gave final passage to a set of amendments to House Bill 3062, a measure supporters say is intended to put a stop to what they describe as “venue shopping.” The Senate originally passed the amendments on Friday, May 19, by a vote of 37-16. The House concurred with those amendments by votes of 69-35. It clears the way for the measure to head to Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

In the last few years, the state has been named as a defendant in a flurry of lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of COVID-19-related executive orders as well as high-profile laws eliminating cash bail and banning assault-style weapons.

Litigation over those issues was filed in several of Illinois’ 102 counties, based on where various plaintiffs either lived or believed their constitutional rights were violated. Similar suits were eventually consolidated, but sometimes not until after judges from multiple jurisdictions issued conflicting rulings, creating confusion until an appellate court could rule on the matter.

“There has been considerable judge shopping as a tactic that has been used by litigants to secure sweeping court orders blocking state policies by steering cases to judges perceived to be sympathetic to these causes,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, said during House debate Thursday.

Several of the COVID-19 lawsuits were filed in southern Illinois courts by Bond County-based attorney Thomas DeVore. He gained statewide notoriety through the lawsuits and went on to become the unsuccessful Republican candidate for attorney general in 2022. DeVore was also the lead attorney in an Effingham County lawsuit challenging the assault weapons ban, one of two such suits currently on appeal before the Illinois Supreme Court.

Hoffman didn’t mention DeVore by name but did reference the attorney’s tactics during debate.

“One lawyer was charging people $200 just to have their name added as plaintiffs to the lawsuit,” Hoffman said.

Democratic proponents of the bill argued that limiting proper judicial venues to Cook and Sangamon counties is already law for certain types of cases.

Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, said that because most constitutional challenges against the state will inevitably end in an appeal to the state’s high court, the Attorney General is currently spending unnecessary resources fighting essentially the same case in multiple counties.

“They all eventually end up in the (Illinois) Supreme Court,” Harmon said during the Senate’s debate last week. “Which, by the way, sits in Sangamon County and Cook County.”

Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, is pictured on the House floor Thursday, May 25 during debate on a bill that would require constitutional lawsuits against the state to be filed in Cook or Sangamon County. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Jerry Nowicki)

Hoffman described many of the lawsuits filed against the state in the last few years as “frivolous” and echoed Harmon’s arguments about straining the resources of the attorney general’s office.

But Republican Rep. Patrick Windhorst of Metropolis rejected that argument, noting that Attorney General Kwame Raoul has been asking lawmakers for additional authority to take on cases in other areas of law throughout the spring session.

“This is the same attorney general’s office that has requested from this body additional authority to investigate and bring actions against crisis pregnancy centers this session, to bring actions against and investigate gun manufacturers this session,” Windhorst said Thursday. “It doesn’t seem that the Attorney General’s Office is lacking resources when they’re constantly coming to this body requesting more authority to do things. So I think that argument strains credulity.”

Windhorst also argued that while it may be an inconvenience for the attorney general’s office to respond to cases in counties far from Chicago or Springfield, it is equally inconvenient for constituents in his district, which abuts the Ohio River, to seek justice far from their homes.

“You know, where I live, I’m closer to the state capitol of Tennessee than I am Illinois, and I’m almost as close to Atlanta, Georgia, as I am Chicago, Illinois,” he said. “So to say if this body passes an unconstitutional law, in order for me or another person in my community to contest that law, I’ve got to travel a great distance and bear that expense that comes with that, is not fair to the individuals in these communities.”

If the bill becomes law, any future lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a state statute, rule or executive order would have to be filed in either Cook or Sangamon County. The bill also states that the legal doctrine of “forum non conveniens” – which holds that a court can dismiss a case, even though it has jurisdiction, if another forum is more convenient or appropriate – does not apply in such cases.

An additional amendment added in the Senate provides that the bill would not apply to cases arising out of disputes between the state and labor unions representing state employees.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.