Tom Stilp, JD, MBA/MM, LLM, MSC
The current Illinois Constitution took effect July 1, 1971. The 50th anniversary on July 1, 2021 has so far been met with surprisingly little fanfare or celebration.
Illinois has had four (4) Constitutions. A little history will set the stage.
In 1784, Virginia relinquished possession of Illinois County to the federal government, which became the Illinois territory. (“A Short History” from Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, D. Rolewick, p. 4-6). On December 3, 1818, President James Monroe signed an act of Congress admitting Illinois as a state. (Op cit., p. 8).
When the Illinois Constitution of 1818 took effect, of course, there were no “laws” on the books. The very first bill passed by the General Assembly, therefore, adopted the laws of England as the laws of the new state of Illinois:
“That the common law of England, all Statutes or acts of the British Parliament made in aid of the common law, prior to the fourth year of the reign of King James the first . . . which are of a general nature and not local to that Kingdom, shall be the rule of decision and shall be considered as of full force, until repealed by Legislative authority.”
The mention of the common law “prior to the fourth year of the reign of King James” needs explanation. The reign of King James I began in 1603, and the first settlement in the American colonies, named “Jamestown” as a homage to the King, occurred in 1607. The reference to “the fourth year of the reign of King James” relates to the first permanent English settlement in American colonies. (E.g., J. Benson, “Reception of the Common Law in Missouri,” 67 Missouri Law Rev. 595, 599 (2002).)
As Illinois grew, out of necessity, given the lack of uniformity and organizational problems of government, the state put forth three more Constitutions in 1848, 1870, and finally, 1970 (effective July 1, 1971).
In 1962, just prior to the current Constitution, Cook County alone had 208 different courts with overlapping jurisdiction, including state, county, Chicago, village, town, municipal, justice of the peace and police magistrate courts. (“A Short History,” supra, p. 19).
The 1970 Constitution ushered in the concept of “home rule.” By instituting home rule, local governing bodies were given wide authority to exercise power. (Handbook of Illinois Government, 1985, p. 86).
Illinois now leads the nation with some 9,000 duplicative units of government, although larger states function with far less. Florida, as an example, has 170% the population of Illinois, but only 15% of the units of government. (Sources: Chi. Trib. Editorial, §1, p. 11, 06.25.2021; Google state populations).
As you enjoy the July 4th Holiday, remember the 50th Anniversary of Illinois’ current Constitution.