Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan | Youtube screenshot
CHICAGO -- A U.S. Supreme Court decision on redistricting could energize the campaign for independent map making in Illinois, according to one advocate who wants to wrest control of the process away from politicians.
In a 5-4 opinion, the court found that federal benches are not in a position to decide on an issue that is best left to the states, its legislators and courts.
"We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts," Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority, an opinion supported by the four conservative justices on the bench.
Madeleine Doubek | CHANGE Illinois
"Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions."
The cases under review centered on Maryland, where the Democrat-controlled legislature effectively eliminated one of the two GOP seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, and North Carolina, where Republican legislators were accused of tilting the map against Democrats.
While the conservatives on the Supreme Court voted against what reformers wanted in Illinois, and most of the high profile redistricting controversies involve Republican-controlled legislatures, in Illinois the battle is against the supermajority Democrats, led by the man who has led the Illinois General Assembly for nearly the entirety of the last four decades, House Speaker Michael J. Madigan.
In Illinois, the decision was greeted with deep disappointment by those campaigning for years for reform of the redistricting process, which, it is argued, is controlled by politicians more interested in protecting incumbents and majorities.
Madeleine Doubek, executive director of CHANGE Illinois, a reform group driving the campaign to pass a Fair Maps Amendment in Springfield, described the Supreme Court decision as "very troubling and disheartening."
The decision, at its root, states that the federal government cannot "defend and uphold" the principle of one person, one vote, Doubek told the Cook County Record.
But Doubek added: "I believe that their decision may become a rallying cry for Illinoisans, (to) rise up and demand an end to a system that rigs districts."
The focus of the campaign will be on the legislature and constitutional amendments, filed in Springfield as SJR 4 and HJR 15, which calls for the removal of sitting legislators from the drawing of districts and the establishment of an independent redistricting commission.
It needs three fifths support in both chambers of the General Assembly. Doubek said the campaign has received bipartisan support, which is particularly strong in the Senate.
Doubek concedes it will be a tough challenge, particularly when facing the House leadership, including Speaker Madigan.
As it stands, the option of a court challenge appears to a be a long shot, as the Illinois Supreme Court, most recently in a narrow 2016 4-3 decision, ruled against placing a vote for a constitutional amendment on the ballot that November.
But there is "growing momentum" for change, with polls suggesting the vast majority of voters in Illinois supporting substantial reform.
Redistricting will take place in 2021 following the previous year's census. In the past, decisions were made behind closed doors, Doubek said.
In 2010, public hearings were held, but they were window dressing, she said, adding that the map was unveiled late on a Friday and approved the following Monday.
Dick Simpson, professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the Supreme Court decision "leaves things unchanged."
"in short, Michael Madigan's system is still in place," Simpson told the Cook County Record. "Every attempt to try and have a constitutional challenge that required a fair redistricting commission has failed in the courts."
It is up to the legislators and politicians to introduce reform, the political scientist said. He noted that prominent Illinois Democrats Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Gov. JB Pritzker have both stated their support for redistricting reform. It remains to be seen what Pritzker will actually do, however, when the Democrat-dominated General Assembly presents him with a new map many expect will again be tilted heavily in favor of increasing the Democratic supermajority.
But to move legislators to introduce reform measures will be difficult as the system is "designed to protect incumbents, protect majorities," Simpson said, adding that it is going to "require will that has not been there."
Simpson expressed his disappointment in the Supreme Court.
"A big battle is looking likely in Illinois, but Michael Madigan and the incumbents hold the cards," Simpson said.