Oral arguments to begin Tuesday in redistricting cases

By Peter Hancock Capitol News Illinois

The U.S. federal courthouse in Chicago

SPRINGFIELD – A three-judge federal court panel in Chicago will begin hearing oral arguments Tuesday in three cases that could determine the makeup of state legislative maps in the Chicago area and Metro East region for the next 10 years.

The panel announced during a status hearing Friday that it will go ahead with in-person oral arguments, even though two sets of plaintiffs had said earlier in the week that the case could be decided solely on the briefs and written testimony that have already been filed.

Democrats in the General Assembly pushed through the new district maps during a special session in August after the much-delayed numbers from the 2020 U.S. Census were released. Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed them into law in September.

It was the General Assembly’s second attempt at redrawing legislative maps. They also passed a tentative set of maps during the regular spring session using population estimates from survey data in order to beat the Illinois Constitution’s June 30 deadline, after which the process would have been handed to a bipartisan commission on which partisan control could have been determined by random chance.

After the September maps became law, three groups of plaintiffs filed suits in federal court to challenge them. Among those were the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, which argued that the new plan reduces Latino voting influence in the Chicago area despite the fact that the Latino population grew significantly over the previous decade.

In addition, the East St. Louis Branch of the NAACP, along with the state NAACP and the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations, or UCCRO, challenged the districts in the Metro East region claiming they unfairly diluted Black voting blocs in that area.

And Republican leaders in the General Assembly – Sen. Dan McConchie, of Hawthorn Woods, and Rep. Jim Durkin, of Western Springs – filed suit challenging both the Chicago and Metro East maps based on arguments largely similar to those of the other two plaintiffs.

Their arguments are based largely on Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits election practices that discriminate on the basis of race or membership in a recognized language minority.

They argue that Latino populations in the Chicago area and Black populations in Metro East live in compact enough areas, and tend to vote cohesively enough to elect candidates of their choice if they are drawn together in one or more districts.

All three suits name Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, and House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, as defendants, along with the Illinois State Board of Elections. Attorneys for Harmon and Welch have denied the plaintiffs’ arguments, saying the plaintiffs are the ones trying to redraw maps based solely on racial considerations.

Since the cases were filed in October, all of the parties have filed thousands of pages of briefs, depositions from expert witnesses and other documents to bolster their cases. The court has put the cases on an expedited schedule in hopes of resolving the issues in time for candidates to begin circulating nominating petitions in mid-January.

On Monday, Nov. 29, attorneys for MALDEF and the Republican leaders told the court that they believed the judges could decide the case on the information already on file, while the NAACP plaintiffs said they only needed a brief hearing for oral arguments.

On Thursday, though, attorneys for Harmon and Welch said they believed a full in-person hearing was needed, and the judges allowed that request.

The high-profile hearing will take place in a ceremonial courtroom in the Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago under strict COVID-19 protocols, which means seating will be limited to about only two dozen members of the media and public. Only two attorneys for each set of plaintiffs and the legislative defendants will be allowed to sit before the bench at any given time.

The cases will be heard by U.S. District Judge Robert M. Dow Jr., of the Northern District of Illinois; District Judge Jon E. DeGuilio, of the Northern District of Indiana; and Circuit Judge Michael B. Brennan, of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesday, with additional arguments Wednesday morning, if necessary.