Illinois’ constitution says lawmakers can’t be arrested on their way to and from Springfield and state law also protects lawyers, judges and others going to and from court.
Many state constitutions say lawmakers are immune from arrest when performing their official duties, harkening back to English laws that forbade the king from detaining members of parliament. Illinois law goes further. It says legislators, judges, attorneys, clerks, sheriffs and other court officers “shall be privileged from arrest” on their way to and from their official duties.
“It extends the privilege to others including attorneys and judges,” said governmental attorney Joe Kanefield, partner with Ballard Spahr. Kanefield said history has shown the need for the protection but problems crop up when it’s abused.
Lawmaker immunity can also apply to their staffers in certain situations, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. Referring to the protection for courthouse staff, professor Chris Mooney with the University of Illinois’ Institute of Government and Public affairs said laws like this typically come from reactions to specific incidents.
“I’m wondering what happened that led to this,” he said. “Another way that this happens is a state will appropriate the language from somebody else.”
The law was enacted in 1963.
The issue of legislative immunity often comes up in stories about lawmakers claiming immunity when caught speeding.
In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey issued an executive order clarifying that speeding constituted a “breach of the peace” and that made the immunity clause inapplicable. This came after a lawmaker there was pulled over for excessive speeding, boasted about it on camera, and then was released without a ticket.
Former Illinois state Rep. Monroe Flinn, D-Cahokia, tested this provision after being ticketed for doing 84 miles per hour on Interstate 55, which at the time had a 55 miles per hour limit. An appellate court ruled in 1977 that Flinn, who died in 2005, wasn’t immune from speeding, deeming it a breach of peace.
The Washington State Police stand down when they see their legislators speed by them on their way to Olympia, saying they’re immune to noncriminal traffic tickets during the legislative session.
“There is a long history of lawmakers hurrying back and forth between Springfield and their homes,” Mooney said. “It matters if somebody takes advantage of it.”