Illinois will never have fair maps for its legislative districts under the present Illinois Supreme Court. There is an opportunity in November to change the court, yet I fear the contest will not be engaging, even though it’s long past time for a change.
This is political inside baseball, so stick with me on this, if you’re interested.
In 1964, Democratic Governor Otto Kerner and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley made changes in the state judiciary that included a kind of gerrymandering, if you will. Previously, Illinois had seven Supreme Court justices from seven districts. The new structure called for the same seven justices, one each from four districts outside Cook County (Chicago), but with three justices elected countywide in Cook.
This latter proviso all but guaranteed there would be a Democratic majority on the court, as there has been continuously since 1964. Three Democrats are routinely elected from Cook County, always the ones endorsed by the Cook County Democratic Central Committee. In 1964 and forward, Democrats banked on a fourth Dem from the deep southern Illinois district, which was the case until a decade ago.
If Cook were divided into three one-justice districts, like the rest of the state, the outcome would likely have been two Democrats from Chicago districts and one GOPer from the county’s suburbs. And thus, the court might have bounced back and forth between Democratic and Republican 4-3 majorities, as one or more of the downstate districts is typically competitive on a partisan basis.
Over the decades, the Democratic court majority has been reliably protective of the interests of Cook County Democrats, rejecting efforts to create term limits, and rebuffing court challenges to heavily gerrymandered legislative districting.
The Illinois Constitution requires that districts shall be “compact, contiguous and substantially equal in population.” The dictionary defines “compact” as “closely and neatly packed together; dense.”
Now, take a look at the graphic nearby, which shows the Illinois House districts in the Chicago area, from the 2010 maps approved by the Democratic majorities in the Legislature. Observe the numerous House districts that literally snake out from the inner city. Are those closely and neatly packed? The Illinois Supreme Court Democratic majority said they passed constitutional muster! And it will say so again, after next year’s redistricting — unless the court is changed.
For the past 20 years, Justice Thomas Kilbride, a Democrat, has served as the justice from the 3rd District, which covers most of central Illinois, from Rock Island-Moline to Peoria to Joliet. He was elected 20 years ago with a late, unexpected campaign infusion of $1 million from Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan. In 2010, the justice spent $2.5 million, largely from Mike Madigan, and was retained with just less than 66 percent of the vote.
Kilbride seeks retention for another 10-year term, and needs to achieve support from 60 percent of voters at the November general election.
If Kilbride were to fail in his retention bid, the court would likely become 3-3 on a partisan basis. Democrats alone would thus be unable to overrule a lower court ruling that finds a new, gerrymandered redistricting failed to meet the “compact” requirements of the constitution. Then, in 2022, there would be an election to fill the vacancy in the 3rd District.
Speaker Madigan, also chair of the Illinois Democratic Party, and Gov. JB Pritzker will spend all the millions they think necessary to protect this Supreme Court seat. On the other side, the Illinois Republican Party doesn’t have two nickels to rub together. And the party’s big donors are still smarting from recent losses. They may fear being overwhelmed by the almost limitless political treasury of billionaire Pritzker.
As an old campaign manager for statewide and presidential candidates, I don’t think a challenge has to match opponents dollar for dollar to be successful.
First, the powerful, tried and true slogan, “It’s time for a change” was never more apt, after more than half a century of continuous one-party domination of the court. Second, the public is at present sour toward incumbents, maybe with good reason. Third, the 3rd District is trending Republican, carrying unpopular GOP Governor Bruce Rauner handily in 2018.
This is a golden opportunity to achieve redistricting reform, and maybe, over time, additional good government structural changes. It’s time for a change.
For many years, Jim Nowlan was a senior fellow and political science professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. He has worked for three unindicted governors and published a weekly newspaper in central Illinois.