A federal judge has ruled Cook County Republicans have the constitutional right to attempt to weed out potential Democratic party operatives, who local Republicans worry have infiltrated their committeemen ranks. 

The Sept. 14 ruling was rendered by Senior Judge Milton Shadur in U.S. District Court for Northern Illinois. 

Shortly before the March 16 primary, Cook County Republicans inserted a provision into their bylaws that prohibited a GOP ward committeeman from holding the post if he or she had voted in a primary for another political party in the previous eight years. Republicans made this move, because they were wary of Democrats planting moles in GOP wards, according to court papers. 

In the March 16 primary, Frances Sapone was elected Republican committeeman for the 29th Ward and Sammy Tenuta was elected as the Republican in the 36th Ward. They both ran without opponents. Both wards are on Chicago’s northwest side. Republican officials then determined Sapone and Tenuta had voted in Democratic primaries in the preceding eight years, disqualifying them from office. The Republican Party considered their slots vacant. 

In the same primary, no Republican was on the ballot as candidate for the post of U.S. representative for Illinois’ Seventh Congressional District. As a consequence, Republicans conducted a meeting April 13 at which committeemen from precincts in the seventh district chose Jeffrey Leef as the GOP nominee. Notice of this meeting was sent to committeemen in the district. Sapone and Tenuta’s wards were in the district, but they were not notified, as the party did not recognize them as committeemen. 

Sapone cried foul, objecting to Leef’s selection on the grounds she and Tenuta, as committeemen, were not told of the meeting at which Leef was nominated. The matter went before a Chicago Board of Election Commissioners’ hearing officer, who recommended the Board prevent Leef from appearing on the November ballot, because Sapone and Tenuta were not given notice. 

Republicans then had a preliminary injunction put in place to prevent the Board from taking further action, prompting Sapone and Tenuta to ask the court to lift the injunction. Both sides next filed motions to toss each other’s court actions – Republicans contending the Board was denying their right to free speech and due process, Sapone and Tenuta saying whatever rights the Republicans claimed, were overrode by “compelling state interests.” The Board did not weigh in on the issue, taking the role of bystander. 

Judge Shadur made short shrift of Sapone and Tenuta’s arguments, observing, “This is not a close case at all.” 

The 92-year-old Shadur went on to explain his reasoning. 

“The state does not have the statutory authority to prescribe – a subject about which the Election Code is silent – limits on the qualifications that a political party may requires of its ward committeemen,” Shadur said. “This Court is not at liberty here to dictate or second guess the internal party-switching bylaws of the GOP, because doing so would violate the First Amendment. The functions of organizing and nominating candidates that are at issue in this case are inherently internal responsibilities of a political party.” 

Shadur granted the Republican request to declare the bylaw valid and bar Sapone and Tenuta from serving as committeemen. Shadur also ordered the Board to refrain from further action in the matter. 

However, Sapone and Tenuta apparently do not intend to give up. They filed notice Sept. 16 they plan to appeal Shadur’s decision to the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. 

In the wake of Shadur’s ruling, Chris Cleveland, chairman of the Chicago Republican Party, accused the Board of a “naked display of partisanship” in favor of Democrats, and took a dig at Illinois’ most prominent Democratic state politician, Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan. 

“The broader legal implication of this case is that Mike Madigan cannot decide, through force of law, how the Republican Party operates in this state,” Cleveland wrote. 

The Republicans are represented by Boulton & Associates. The Board of Election Commissioners is represented by James M. Scanlon & Associates. Sapone and Tenuta, are represented by the Law Office of Pericles Camberis Abbasi. All the firms are of Chicago.

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Organizations in this Story

Chicago Republican Party
1549W Blackhawk St.
Chicago, IL 60610-2344

James M. Scanlon & Associates
8 South Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL 60603

Law Offices of Pericles Camberis Abbasi
6800 West Armitage Avenue
Chicago, IL 60707

Boulton & Associates
123 North Upper Wacker Drive
Chicago, IL 60606

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