Does the State of Illinois have to pay elected officials' attorney fees when the underlying complaint alleges that the official committed "intentional, willful or wanton misconduct"? Earlier this month, a unanimous Illinois Supreme Court held in McFatridge v. Madigan that the answer was "no." Our detailed report on the facts and underlying court opinions in McFatridge is here. Our report on the oral argument in McFatridge is here.
The plaintiff in McFatridge is the former State's Attorney in Edgar County. In 1987, he successfully prosecuted two individuals for murder. Many years later, the defendants' habeas petitions were granted; they were not retried. So they sued a number of people involved in the prosecution, including the plaintiff.
In 2005, 2009 and again in 2010, the plaintiff asked the Attorney General for representation in the civil case pursuant to the terms of the Illinois State Employee Indemnification Act. Each time, his request was denied.
Here's the operative language from the statute:
(a) In the event that any civil proceeding is commenced against any State employee arising out of any act or omission occurring within the scope of the employee's State employment, the Attorney General shall, upon timely and appropriate notice to him by such employee, appear on behalf of such employee and defend the action . . .
(b) In the event that the Attorney General determines that so appearing and defending an employee an employee either (1) involves an actual or potential conflict of interest, or (2) that the act or omission which gave rise to the claim . . . was intentional, willful or wanton misconduct, the Attorney General shall decline in writing to appear or defend . . .
In the event that the defendant in the proceeding is an elected State official . . . the elected State official may retain his or her attorney, provided that said attorney shall be reasonably acceptable to the Attorney General. In such case the State shall pay the elected State official's court's costs, litigation expenses, and attorneys' fees . . .
So does the statute create two separate classes -- unelected officials, who can be turned down for intentional, willful or wanton misconduct, and elected officials, for whom the duty to pay fees is mandatory? Or does the final paragraph mean something different? That's the question the Court was confronting. The lower courts disagreed: the Circuit Court dismissed, but the Appellate Court (Fourth District) reversed.
In a unanimous opinion by Justice Anne Burke
, the Supreme Court reversed the Fourth District. The Appellate Court had applied a canon of construction to hold that since the second paragraph of the statute described a more specific subgroup - elected officials - the intent must have been to carve out an exception from the earlier, larger group - employees who can be turned down under certain circumstances. The problem with that analysis, the Supreme Court held, was that the paragraphs didn't relate to the same subject - the first paragraph related to the circumstances in which the Attorney General would defend employees, and the second conferred on elected officials the right to hire their own attorneys. Therefore, the rule of construction didn't apply. The language in the first paragraph referring to "employees" clearly included elected officials, the Court found, so the "intentional, willful or wanton" exception applied to elected officials. Besides, the Court pointed out, subsection 2(c) of the statute, immediately following the language about elected officials, imposed a duty to represent and indemnify with respect to judges "without regard to the theory of recovery employed by the plaintiff," demonstrating that the legislature knew how to carve individuals out if they chose to do so. But there was simply no general exemption in the statute for elected officials. Therefore, the Attorney General correctly exercised her discretion to refuse to represent the plaintiff.