PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — A trio of appellate-court judges says embattled Peoria County Auditor Jessica Thomas has lost any right she had to the office after a referendum last fall abolished it.
The 15-page opinion, handed down Thursday night by the 4th District Appellate Court in Springfield, said Thomas has no legal standing to oppose the referendum. A preliminary injunction, put in place last November after the election to stop the county from eliminating her office, is invalid, according to the opinion.
Thomas has no “clearly ascertainable right to serve as county auditor because her ‘rights to the office ceased’ once the voters passed the referendum to eliminate the office,” Judge Kathryn Zenoff stated. Judges Robert Steigmann and Peter Cavanagh concurred.
Furthermore, the judges said because Thomas has no right to hold office, she “lacks standing to obtain injunctive relief.”
One of Thomas’ attorneys, Justin Penn, said he was disappointed with the ruling.
“The appellate court decided the issue based solely on a single case that was not raised or discussed by any party in the appellate briefs,” he said. “That practice is usually problematic in judicial decisions. In light of that and the statewide interest this issue presents, she has very strong arguments for her appeal.”
Penn said his client plans to challenge the opinion, either through an appeal to a higher court or to ask the appellate court to reconsider their ruling.
Peoria County Judge James Mack’s ruling in late November on the injunction only covered the time her suit was pending. That could be until 2024 or later this year, depending upon what happens after the case returns to Peoria County.
Thomas’ attorneys argued to the appellate judges that she had legal standing to protect her office, at least through the end of her term, because the ballot measure had no specific date when the office would be abolished. It was vague, the attorneys contended.
But the appellate court sided with the county, saying, “The November 8, 2022, referendum had the effect of eliminating the office of county auditor, such that plaintiff cannot establish that she has a clearly ascertainable interest.”
Additionally, the judges noted the “referendum explicitly said that Peoria County already has an external auditor and asked whether the office of county auditor should be eliminated. For that reason, we are unconvinced that the referendum allowed the plaintiff to serve out the remainder of her term.”
Last November, Mack ruled Peoria County must continue funding the auditor’s office, despite an overwhelming vote during the Nov. 8 election to get rid of the office.
County officials had wanted to shut off the funding at the end of November. Team Thomas disagreed and sought the injunction to keep the dollars flowing through the end of her term in 2024.
The county’s 2023 budget funds only Thomas’ salary and benefits. She has no other employees.
Thomas had filed suit in 2021 after the county began its push to eliminate the office. Back then, they cut her budget; a move she said was illegal. The injunction, a legal way for a judge to stop the actions of another, was connected to that lawsuit.