SPRINGFIELD — If Democrats have their way, the state’s five Illinois Supreme Court districts could be redrawn this year for the first time in more than five decades.
Democrats in the General Assembly released a new Illinois Supreme Court map on Tuesday, May 25, to the surprise of legislative Republicans, who claim they were kept entirely out of the loop on the mapmaking process.
Rep. Tim Butler of SpringfieldJustices , who serves on the House Redistricting Committee, said he had no notice of the court maps being released.
“I have asked repeatedly…if the majority planned to redistrict the Supreme Court. I never once got a response to that. I think this discussion of transparency and engagement, especially with the minority party, just goes straight out the window,” Butler said at a joint redistricting hearing on May 25.
House and Senate Republicans also took issue with the fact that the proposed Illinois Supreme Court map heavily favors Democrats.
But more than 20 years ago, the roles were reversed, with Republican lawmakers redrawing boundaries to create a partisan Supreme Court map that would have given the GOP an advantage in judicial elections.
In early January 1997, the Republicans’ two years of majority control in the 89th General Assembly was coming to an end.
After former Speaker Michael Madigan regained control of the House in the 1996 elections, Republicans pushed through several measures during the very last days of the legislative session, said Charlie Wheeler, an emeritus professor at University of Illinois Springfield, who covered the Illinois General Assembly for the Chicago Sun-Times for more than two decades.
“The Republicans were very concerned because they realized that much of their wish list would not pass with Madigan in charge of the House,” Wheeler said in an interview.
With that in mind, Republicans passed a new judicial map the day before the 89th legislative session ended.
In March 1997, Republican Gov. Jim Edgar signed the new proposed map redrawing the Illinois Supreme Court districts. In particular, the law would have redrawn the 1st District, which contains Cook County, into three separate judicial districts.
Justices who are elected in the 1st District run as at-large candidates, and Democratic candidates have an advantage in heavily Democratic Cook County.
Three of the seven Illinois Supreme Court justices are elected from Cook County, while the remaining justices come from four separate districts across the state.
At the time, Democrats in the General Assembly condemned Republicans for drafting a clearly partisan map, according to transcripts.
Former Democratic Rep. Lou Lang said the Supreme Court had already ruled on this question of splitting Cook County into separate districts when a similar remap was proposed in 1989.
“You cannot split Cook County. That’s the clear words of the statute,” Lang said during a debate on the House floor on Jan. 7, 1997. “You cannot divide Cook County into three separate districts. The court of our state has already ruled on that.”
Lang called the new map “political retribution.”
“It’s a bill of attempting to grab an arm of government that you don’t have today. It’s a bill that’s designed to take from the people their right to elect under the constitution, the Supreme Court judges of the state of Illinois, and you want to change it so that it’s a different result.”
Ultimately, Lang’s prediction was correct as the Illinois Supreme Court rejected the proposed map because it divided Cook County into three districts and split some judicial circuits between judicial districts.
In its 1998 opinion, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that splitting the 1st District would violate the constitutional requirement that appeals from a circuit court must be heard by the appellate court in the judicial district in which the circuit court is located.
The court struck the entire map as invalid, finding redistricting of the 1st District could not be severed from the rest of the redrawn map.
“Any attempt by this court to retain only bits and pieces of this dramatic legislation would do violence to the legislative intent to change the judicial districting of the entire state,” the court ruled.
The maps released by Democrats do not, however, separate Cook County, nor do they separate judicial circuits between judicial districts.