SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) -- The Illinois Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered and end to legal action that has been blocking Gov. Pat Quinn from closing state prisons.
In a split decision, the high court directed that a lower court lift a preliminary injunction that had been granted to a state workers' union trying to keep the prisons open.
Quinn's office said the ruling means the governor may proceed with shuttering the facilities. The union, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, is still awaiting a judge's ruling on whether an independent arbitrator was correct in finding Quinn had followed proper procedures with his shutdown plan. It wasn't immediately clear whether the Supreme Court order trumps that.
Three of the seven justices dissented, arguing that the court was overstepping its bounds, ignoring key constitutional questions that the Quinn administration itself raised and taking the unusual step of determining that the arbitrator's ruling was correct. That should be left up to a local judge to decide after the two sides' arguments, they said.
"Generally, the decision of whether a preliminary injunction should be dissolved is a matter that should be reserved to the trial court's discretion, with the benefit of arguments from the parties," Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride wrote in one of two dissenting opinions.
The decree appears to clear the way for Quinn to close a high-security Tamms prison, in Alexander County; a women's lockup in Dwight; juvenile detention centers in Murphysboro and Joliet; and three halfway houses for inmates nearing release dates.
Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson praised the decision, saying taxpayers "will no longer be on the hook" for spending money in a budget crisis on facilities the administration considers underutilized and too pricey. A union spokesman did not have an immediate comment.
In August, the union sued in Alexander County, where Tamms is located. The union argued that Quinn had not followed contract rules to negotiate the impact the closures would have on state workers, such as prison guards. Workers are worried, in part, about prison system crowding and moving dangerous inmates isolated at Tamms into general-population prisons.
"This ruling doesn't change the fact that closing any prison will worsen severe overcrowding throughout the correctional system, making the remaining prisons more dangerous for employees, inmates and ultimately the public," AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall said. Illinois prisons, originally designed for 33,700 inmates, hold more than 49,000 today.
Alexander County Associate Circuit Judge Charles Cavaness issued the injunction this fall to allow time for the two sides to negotiate and for an arbitrator to decide whether talks had been in good faith. The arbitrator's October ruling found that Quinn had done what was necessary even though there was no agreement reached.
The union challenged that opinion before Cavaness, a dispute "we intend to vigorously purse," Lindall said — even though the prisons might close first.
The Supreme Court's majority opinion Tuesday did not elaborate on the decision to issue a "supervisory order." It instructs a state appellate court to send the matter back to Cavaness "with directions to dissolve the preliminary injunction."
The justices in opposition — Kilbride and Mary Jane Theis and Anne Burke, who joined in a separate dissent — argued that such supervisory power should be reserved for cases where there's reason to believe a lower court will take action beyond its authority.
Kilbride noted that the Quinn administration argued for Supreme Court intervention because of the constitutional issues the case raised, including the separation of powers among branches of government, a governor's authority to tinker with legislative appropriations and the state's power to control its finances.
By giving Quinn its supervisory power, Kilbride said the court "resolved all of these important issues" and took the unusual step of confirming the arbitrator's award without allowing both sides to duke it out before a trial judge.
Theis wrote that the court acted too hastily, suggesting there are other legal avenues yet to be taken.
"Clearly, this case is far from over," she wrote.
Contact John O'Connor at https://www.twitter.com/apoconnor .