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Illinois Judge, Again, Bans Ballot Measure That Would Revoke Legislature's Redistricting Power

A Cook County judge on Wednesday tossed from the fall ballot a constitutional amendment to take away the General Assembly's power to draw legislative district boundaries, dealing a loss to Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and a win to Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan.

By Kim Geiger

A Cook County judge on Wednesday tossed from the fall ballot a constitutional amendment to take away the General Assembly's power to draw legislative district boundaries, dealing a loss to Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and a win to Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan.

The ruling marked the second time in three years that the Independent Maps group suffered a major legal setback in attempting to ask voters whether the state should remove much of the politics from redistricting. The stumbling block was the same as last time, with a judge finding the proposal did not fit a narrow legal window for a petition-driven initiative to change the Illinois Constitution.

Independent Maps chairman Dennis FitzSimons vowed to appeal the case to the Illinois Supreme Court, in hopes the question could still appear on the Nov. 8 ballot. Both FitzSimons' coalition and the People's Map group that filed the lawsuit anticipated that's where the case would end up anyway.

Madigan opposed the referendum, suggesting it would hurt protections on ensuring minority representation. The speaker has maintained his hold at the Capitol for more than three decades in part because he's had the power to draw the boundaries of legislative districts, and a longtime Madigan ally was the attorney for People's Map.

Rauner, Madigan's chief nemesis, had thrown his support behind the referendum this year when it appeared that the initiative process could gain better traction than his own failed effort to get lawmakers to authorize such a ballot question. For more than a year, a new map-drawing process has been among a half-dozen legislative proposals Rauner has sought as conditions for breaking the budget stalemate in Springfield.

On Wednesday, Rauner warned that if the referendum ruling were upheld, "it will prove that we need to put political reform at the top of our legislative agenda."

Rauner's Illinois Republican Party was harsher, blaming Madigan.

"Instead of supporting the chance to vote for fair maps, Mike Madigan's allies sued to stop voters from having the opportunity to vote for reform. It's sad to see that Mike Madigan's Democratic Party would rather deny voters their voice than face fair, competitive elections," state party spokesman Steven Yaffe said in a statement.

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown would not comment on the ruling. "Since we are not involved I will let media attention flow to those in the case," Brown said in an email.

Redistricting is a dry, inside-baseball issue, but key to whether Democrats or Republicans wield power at the Capitol.

Illinois' 118 House and 59 Senate district boundaries are currently drawn up by lawmakers every decade to reflect population changes determined by the federal census. The maps are subject to approval of the governor, and there is a separate process for breaking a stalemate if the legislature and governor can't agree.

Critics contend the system allows the party in power to maintain its hold on seats by clustering voters of the minority party into as few districts as possible. The last time the maps were redrawn, in 2011, Democrats controlled both chambers of the legislature and the new boundaries were approved by then-Gov. Pat Quinn, also a Democrat. The party now boasts supermajorities in the House and Senate.

The complex Independent Maps proposal seeks to ask voters to change the process so that it's not exclusively in the hands of elected officials. Instead, the maps would be drawn by an 11-member board, including representatives of the four legislative leaders, and would require approval of seven commissioners with at least two Republicans and two Democrats on board. If the commission failed to reach a consensus, the two ranking state Supreme Court justices from each political party would appoint someone to draw a map.

The concept won more than enough signatures to make the ballot, but was quickly tied up in court after a challenge from People's Map, a coalition of prominent minority businessmen who had Madigan's Illinois Democratic Party lawyer and longtime ally Mike Kasper argue the case.

Kasper's legal strategy -- and Judge Diane Larsen's ruling -- illustrate the trickiness of crafting a referendum that can pass constitutional muster, given that Illinois' constitution is limited to only those initiatives that affect the structure and procedure of the General Assembly.

Kasper argued the proposed amendment runs afoul of that limitation because it gives additional duties to the state's auditor general and two justices on the state Supreme Court. Such a move could affect other parts of the constitution, Kasper contended. He also argued the proposal didn't do enough to change the "basic structure of the General Assembly as an institution."

Proponents countered that changing the redistricting process is indeed a structural and procedural change. "Legislative districts are the building blocks ... that determine the makeup of the General Assembly," argued Michele Odorizzi, a partner at Mayer Brown and lead attorney of the Independent Maps coalition.

Judge Larsen agreed with Kasper, concluding that the proposal "is not limited to structural and procedural subjects." Among the problems Larsen identified was the provision requiring Supreme Court justices from two different political parties to select a special commissioner if the new commission can't agree.

Noting that party affiliation is not included on Illinois judicial retention ballots, Larsen concluded that "the requirement that at least two Illinois Supreme Court justices not have the same political affiliation adds a new eligibility requirement for the office of Judge of the Illinois Supreme Court."

Larsen kept the door open for future attempts to amend the constitution's provisions on redistricting, writing that "redistricting in general is a structural and procedural subject" of the constitution, but that the referendum question as written went too far.

Illinois has a long history of failed attempts at changing the way legislative boundaries are drawn, ever since the current rules were put in place during the creation of the 1970 Constitution, which was written in part by Madigan, a young Springfield newcomer.

Under those rules, lawmakers draw the maps and the governor signs off. But if the two branches are controlled by different parties and no agreement can be reached, a winner-take-all tiebreaker system decides who will prevail.

That's what's happened from 1981 to 2001. In each instance, the party that won the drawing ended up gaining control of the Senate. In the House, Madigan lost his speakership for two years after Republicans won the 1991 drawing. But he swiftly regained it, and has controlled the map-drawing process ever since.

Critics of the current system tried and failed to get a differently phrased question on the 2014 ballot, with that effort also succumbing to a Kasper-led court challenge, although it also was unclear whether the group had enough valid signatures. This time, Independent Maps filed more than 570,000 petition signatures, almost double what's needed, and raised more than $4 million.

FitzSimons said the group was expecting a legal challenge and made a point of "crafting an amendment that follows constitutional guidelines while also creating a system that is independent, fair, transparent, and protects the ability of minority communities to elect candidates of their choosing."

Giving $500,000 each to Independent Maps were Allstate Insurance and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, a charitable trust which promotes civic engagement and was established after the death of the longtime editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune. Other top donors include wealthy businessman Lester Crown, Citadel hedge fund founder Ken Griffin, and Sam Zell, the real estate magnate who acquired Tribune Co. only to file bankruptcy for the media company not long afterward.

Less clear is who funded the People's Map lawsuit. Former ComEd Chairman Frank Clark is among a number of prominent businesspeople, many with minority backgrounds, listed as the plaintiffs in the case. Among them, several have donated to Madigan campaign coffers over the years. But State Board of Elections records show no donations or expenditures to the People's Map group since 2015.

The group's chairman, John Hooker, applauded the ruling, saying the initiative "had unintended consequences for black and brown minority districts."

"Who would be accountable for this map when it's drawn?" said Hooker, a former ComEd lobbyist appointed Chicago Housing Authority chairman by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. "Right now, I can go to the legislators, tell them that there wasn't a good thing that they did and we could vote them out. But if you give me an 11-member board, who's accountable?"

(c)2016 the Chicago Tribune

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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