The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments earlier this week over the City of Chicago’s redistricting plan for the 2015 aldermanic elections.
The challenge over the new, 50-ward map, which the city council approved in January 2012, was lodged by The League of Women Voters’ (LWV) Chicago chapter and more than a dozen of its members, who assert the map is unconstitutional because it violates the “one person, one vote” principle.
Among other arguments raised in their April 2013 federal lawsuit, the LWV plaintiffs also claimed the city deprived them of their voting and equal protection rights by unlawfully implementing the new map before the 2015 election.
The city successfully moved to dismiss the suit, arguing at a July 2013 hearing before U.S. District Judge Sharon Coleman that the plaintiffs lacked standing and failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.
Coleman tossed the suit, spurring the LWV plaintiffs to appeal. A panel of Seventh Circuit made up of Chief Judge Diane Wood and Judges Diane Sykes and Michael Kanne heard arguments in the case Tuesday.
Sean Morales-Doyle, an attorney with Despres, Schwartz & Geoghegan Ltd. in Chicago, argued on behalf of the LWV plaintiffs and Benna Ruth Solomon, deputy corporation counsel for the city’s Law Department, represented the city during arguments.
Focusing on the plaintiffs’ “one-person, one-vote” argument, Morales-Doyle told the panel the new map “cannot stand” because it has deviations in population of up to 8.7-percent, which he dubbed as “arbitrary and discriminatory.”
Wood quickly jumped in, asking whether the city’s map is protected by the so-called safe harbor rule that generally allows deviations of less than 10-percent, a figure many courts have used in analyzing redistricting challenges.
Asserting that the map is not supported by the purposes of redistricting, a process that occurs every 10 years following the census, Morales-Doyle said “the city has a map that violates the one-person, one-vote rule” and that its 8.7 percent population deviation is far closer to 10 than zero.
He told the panel the way in which the City Council went about approving the new map shows its real intent was to draw ward boundaries to secure the votes of the 41 incumbent members on the council and prevent the issue from going to referendum.
State law, according to the suit, states that in order for a city redistricting map to go to the voters, one-fifth or 10 of the 50 city council members would have to petition for it.
In their suit, the LWV plaintiffs alleged that the ordinance, in which the proposed map was presented, wasn’t made public until a half hour before the special city council meeting was called and that it was approved without any debate on a vote of 41-8.
The oft-political nature of the redistricting process, which commonly ends in court challenges and allegations of gerrymandering, was not lost on the panel during Tuesday’s arguments.
One of the judges even garnered chuckles from the audience after posing a hypothetical situation about voting Republican in a city ward, before saying there "are no areas that vote Republican" in Chicago, which has long shown up as blue on the state's voting map.
Kanne asked Morales-Doyle if he thought politics was involved in new map, to which the he responded “yes.” The judge followed up by saying “that’s what they do” in a way that was difficult to decipher whether he was asking a question or making a statement.
“I would never deny politics are part of redistricting,” Morales-Doyle said.
In attempt to understand his position, Wood asked Morales-Doyle if he believes politics in the redistricting process are OK when the population deviations are tiny, but not OK if there are significant deviations.
“Politics are not OK” when one person’s vote counts as more important than another person’s, he responded.
The city, Morales-Doyle told the panel, claims the new map does not amount to a constitutional violation because there was no intent to dilute votes and that deviations in population between wards are allowed for legitimate purposes, such as keeping communities together.
Morales-Doyle, however, said there is “no way” the map at issue here was drawn to keep communities together as some are in five different wards under the new map. The LWV suit listed the Logan Square and Back of the Yards neighborhoods as two examples of this.
He said the new 2nd Ward, for instance, “looks like leftover spaghetti on a dinner plate.”
On behalf of the city, Solomon told the panel the plaintiffs’ voter dilution claims focus on the 2nd and 36th wards, but that neither of those wards have the 8.7 percent in population deviation mentioned in the suit.
Wood, in asking a question to Morales-Doyle a few minutes earlier, mentioned that the city previously claimed the LWV suit was trying to advance the arguments of those two aldermen and not the voters.
In their suit, the LWV plaintiffs stated that the alderman representing the 2nd and 36th wards -- Bob Fioretti and Nick Sposato, respectively, had shown political independence from the council majority, which was “attempting to oust” them with the new map.
Urging the panel to uphold the dismissal of the suit, Solomon said because the highest population deviation of the new map is below 10-percent, the burden to prove discrimination falls on the plaintiffs, something she asserts they have not done.
Although Morales-Doyle told the panel the city has failed to provide an explanation for its redistricting decisions, Solomon said “reasons are not required at this stage” and that the city doesn’t have a burden to justify anything until the pleading stage of the litigation.
“Equal is under 10-percent,” she said, again pointing to the 8.7-percent figure and stressing that the plaintiffs’ claims focus on two wards in which the deviation is not even that high.
During his rebuttal, Doyle said the fact the city hasn’t provided a reason for why it redrew the ward boundaries the way it did proves his point that “there is no reason and if there is, it’s not a good one.”
The judges also addressed the plaintiffs’ argument that the city is depriving them of their voting rights through the allegedly unlawful implementation the new map before the 2015 election, a claim the city rejected at the federal court level.
In their suit, the plaintiffs argued that the city already “changed the City Council members who will be recognized for the purpose of representing plaintiffs in zoning changes, sign orders, infrastructure spending and other city services, as well as other matters that may come before the City Council.”
For instance, the suit alleged city records show the 13th Ward spent money to resurface a street that was located in the 23rd Ward under the last map, but is part of the 13rd Ward in the map for the 2015 election.
Some of the plaintiff voters also claimed they have been referred to different aldermen for help, as opposed to the ones their ward elected as a result of the new map.
Wood told Morales-Doyle she had trouble grasping this argument, questioning how it is a voting rights issue given that if an elected council member dies or resigns, a replacement would made without voter approval in order to fill the vacancy until the next election.
“That’s another case for another day,” Doyle said.
Solomon appeared not to give much weight to the early implementation claim, simply telling the panel that the plaintiffs have not made a Monell claim (a legal principle dealing with when municipalities can be sued).
The above maps of the 2nd Ward were found on Fioretti's website.