Federal panel tosses initial Democratic state legislative map and will consider alternatives to revised plan

·6 min read

A three-judge federal panel on Tuesday tossed the state legislative redistricting plan Illinois Democrats drew based on population estimates as unconstitutional, and said it will consider alternatives to a revised Democratic plan approved last month that used more definitive federal census data.

The U.S. District Court panel faulted the General Assembly’s Democratic majority for originally moving ahead with a plan that relied on population estimates in order to maintain political control over the map. But the judges also rejected Republican efforts to force a map to be redrawn by a commission in a process that could give the GOP control.

Still, the court opened the door to considering revisions to the Democrat’s latest map. The court, responding to challenges from Republicans and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, had admonished Democrats to listen to concerns from ethnic and racial voting rights groups in putting together the map that was approved in September.

But the court noted that, according to legal challenges alleging violations of federal voting rights laws, Democrats excluded Republicans, MALDEF and “numerous community groups from the process” in adopting the latest map.

“Despite pleas from organizations and public advocates alike for additional time to assess the plan and provide input, the (Democratic) majority caucuses then held hearings and voted on the various iterations of that map within hours of its public release and without releasing data that could have facilitated public feedback,” the court said.

It gave Republicans and MALDEF until Nov. 8 to file revisions to the Democratic-approved map and gave Democrats until Nov. 18 to respond to any proposed alternatives.

In approving both the original and revised maps, Democratic lawmakers and Gov. J.B. Pritzker contended that the new boundaries complied with state and federal voting rights laws. But Republicans said the ruling that opened the door to court review of alternative maps “was a victory for Illinois citizens, advocacy groups and communities of interest.”

“During this process the Republican caucuses consistently demanded transparency and fairness in mapmaking, which were rejected by the Democrats and Gov. Pritzker. The court’s ruling validates all the concerns that were raised during the Democrats’ unconstitutional attempt to gerrymander Illinois,” House Republican leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs and Senate GOP leader Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods said in a joint statement.

Democratic Senate President Don Harmon of Oak Park said in a statement that he was “gratified” the court recognized the legislature’s efforts “in unique and unprecedented circumstances” to fulfill its duties, as well as efforts by Democrats to ensure the revised map was constitutional.

“Now,” Harmon said, “the Republicans finally need to put forward their own maps instead of simply complaining about ours.”

Democratic lawmakers passed and Pritzker signed the updated map last month, but they did not repeal the earlier map based on population estimates that Pritzker signed into law in June. That prompted concerns that if the new map was ruled unconstitutional, the legislative election process would automatically revert to the estimated-population map.

The court said it needed to rule on the original map, which it found to be unconstitutional for violating federal equal protection and one-person, one-vote guarantees, to stop any use of the initial map.

The panel — made up of Chief District Judge Jon DeGuillo, Circuit Judge Michael Brennan and District Judge Robert Dow — said the original map, based on estimates from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, created large and impermissible variations between the most populated and least populated legislative districts.

“To be sure, the September redistricting plan was enacted into law on Sept. 24, 2021. But, importantly, the General Assembly did not repeal the June plan,” the panel wrote. “So long as the June redistricting plan remains on the proverbial books and the September redistricting plan is subject to ongoing constitutional challenge, we must presume that the (State Board of Elections) would uphold its obligation to enforce the June redistricting plan if it were the only plan that had not been invalidated in the courts.”

With census results delayed until mid-August, Democrats used the estimated data to enact the first map to meet a constitutional June 30 deadline. Failure to enact a map by that date sets up a bipartisan commission process to draw the boundaries which invariably leads to a deadlock and a drawing to pick a tiebreaking partisan member. That process could have led to Republicans controlling the map and drawing new General Assembly boundaries for the decade.

The court said the decision by Democrats to go ahead with population estimates suggests that they “were motivated by a desire to avoid a commission.”

“To be sure, political considerations are not unconstitutional and courts are reluctant to wade into, much less to reverse, partisan maps, including those that amount to political gerrymanders,” the panel said.

“We are not so naive as to imagine that any party in power would decline to exercise levers available to it to maximize its opportunity to retain seats in the General Assembly,” the judges wrote. “While there is nothing legally wrong with this approach, it is not a proper rationale for violating constitutionally-required mandates.”

The court called the GOP’s request for a post-June 30 commission “far-fetched” and said the constitutional timeline was not drawn with “routine” court challenges in mind.

“In disapproving the June redistricting plan on constitutional grounds, we recognize that Illinois lawmakers faced unprecedented circumstances. The final census data was delayed on account of the pandemic. That circumstance weighs in favor of allowing the General Assembly the first opportunity to remedy the problem in the map that resulted from its first, failed effort,” the court said.

It said the Democratic majority deserved a “second bite of the apple” in approving the revised census-based map in September.

But the court also noted that it had urged Democrats in constructing their new map “to take into account the views of the plaintiffs in crafting any amended plan with the objective of presenting … a plan that satisfies all constitutional and statutory obligations.”

Instead, the court said complaints that the public was given little input.

The panel said it would use the September map as a “starting point” for future legal arguments, including the submission of alternative maps by legal opponents next month.

The court’s action comes as the General Assembly meets in Springfield to consider a map of the state’s congressional districts drawn by Democrats with an eye toward keeping their majority in the Washington delegation. The plan expected to be approved by state lawmakers by the end of next week.

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