A federal appellate court ruled that the city of Chicago Heights set proper boundaries when it redrew aldermanic ward maps, agreeing with a lower court that the map’s opponents, who alleged the city’s map violated a court decree addressing racial discrimination, do not have authority to submit their own alternative map for the court’s consideration.

The city approved its most recent ward map in 2014, after the 2010 census showed the population had shifted. When it sought the approval of the district court, Robert McCoy and Kevin Perkins objected and asked to file their own ward map with the court instead.

The issue at the heart of the litigation began in 1987, when the city and Chicago Heights Park District were sued by black voters who claimed wards were drawn in such a way that they limited voting opportunity. A consent decree was eventually reached to remedy the situation, but in 1994 McCoy and Perkins, who disagreed with the consent decree, split from the rest of the class.

The most recent version of the consent decree, entered in November 2010, establishes seven single-alderman wards and requires the city to reapportion wards as the population changes. The goal is for each ward and the overall map to have a population deviation of 10 percent or less. While the individual wards in the 2014 map fall within the deviation, the overall deviation was 12.65 percent, sparking McCoy and Perkins to protest.

The city justified the map by arguing that it drew the wards using legitimate criteria such as following natural boundary lines like highways, redrawing confusing boundary lines and maintaining historical boundaries where possible to reduce voter confusion. The district court was satisfied and approved the proposed map as constitutional.

“Appellants have failed to present evidence, either in the district court or on appeal, that the city employed any discriminatory criteria or methods in its reapportionment,” the appellate court agreed. “Instead, their arguments can generally be boiled down to comparisons between the city’s proposal and their own, which they deem to be more equitable.”

In their appeal of the court’s decision, McCoy and Perkins argued that not only was the city’s map invalid, the court was wrong in not allowing them to submit their own map for consideration. To support this claim, the plaintiffs pointed to a sentence near the end of the consent decree that states “the parties will … reapportion the voting districts,” saying the reference to “the parties” implies that both the plaintiffs and the city could submit their own versions of the ward map and the court would make the final choice.

The appellate court upheld the district court’s interpretation of the decree, relying on a different clause that says “the defendants shall reapportion the aldermanic ward boundary lines.”

“As the Supreme Court has repeatedly made clear, reapportionment of voting districts is, first and foremost, the responsibility of the local government,” the court wrote. “Typically, a federal court should not involve itself in the reapportionment process unless the governing body fails to put forth a plan that complies with constitutional requirements.”

The appellate judges said allowing the plaintiffs and court to bypass the city’s process and pass an alternative map would contradict the Supreme Court’s edict and rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that they should be allowed to submit their own version of a ward map. The judges said the plaintiffs were permitted to have input into the final map through the public comment process prior to the map’s city approval.

Seventh Circuit Chief Judge Diane P. Wood authored the court's opinion. Circuit judges William J. Bauer and Frank H. Easterbrook concurred in the decision. 

McCoy and Perkins were represented in the case by attorney Robert L. Anderson, of Chicago.

Chicago Heights was represented by the Del Galdo Law Group LLC, of Berwyn.

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Del Galdo Law Group LLC U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois

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