Gov. J.B. Pritzker made big news last week when he signed new legislative maps into law.
While Democrats prattled on about the fairness and diversity of interests reflected by their work, Republicans cried the blues. They claim — accurately — to be victims of more gerrymandering that will dilute their already-declining political power in Illinois.
But the Republicans’ trail of tears turned out to be twice as long as they originally expected because Democrats didn’t stop with redrawing state House and Senate maps.
Taking a lesson from the November 2020 general election, Democrats decided — for the first time in 60 years — to redraw state judicial districts where appellate and Supreme Court justices reside.
It’s their hope — and Republicans’ fear — that the vastly new boundaries will maintain what has been a permanent Democratic majority on the Illinois Supreme Court.
While acknowledging Democrats’ ambitions, one Republican strategist suggested their goal might conflict with their tactics.
“The fundamental point is that Democrats are desperate to maintain the majority they’ve had since 1962,” said former University of Illinois government professor and state Rep. Jim Nowlan.
Nowlan helped lead the successful charge against the retention of Democratic Justice Tom Kilbride in his 2020 campaign. Kilbride’s defeat caused Democrats to fear they would lose that seat in 2022 unless they manipulated the playing field.
The question now is whose calculations are more accurate.
While failing to get the required 60 percent “yes” vote to be retained, Kilbride collected a solid majority —
56 percent — in what was District 3.
Did Democrats really need to redraw the districts to keep their majority? Everyone will find out November 2022, when two high court seats occupied by Kilbride and current appointed 2nd District Justice Michael Burke are up for election.
Democrats hold a 4-3 majority on the high court. Politics rarely enters into decision-making. But when it does, it’s in a big way.
Democratic justices led by Kilbride bailed out former House Speaker Michael Madiganwhen they killed a proposed constitutional amendment that would have stripped legislators of their ability to draw legislative maps and put it in the hands of a bipartisan citizens group.
Illinois is divided into five judicial districts.
Cook County, which has three justices, makes up the first circuit all by itself, and it elects only Democrats.
That means Democrats only need to win one of the four other Supreme Court districts to maintain their majority.
For decades, they relied on the downstate 5th District, headquartered in Mt. Vernon, for that fourth seat.
But the 5th district has turned as red as it once was blue, hospitable now only to Republicans for a variety of reasons.
While Cook County is its own 1st district, the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th fill out Illinois’ other 101 counties.
The judicial redistricting does not affect local circuits. But it’s a different story for the appellate districts.
Champaign County, which was in the Springfield-based 4th Appellate District, will move to the 5th District.
Under the new format, the 5th District gains 11 counties that were in the 4th District, while the 4th District gains 22 counties that were in the 2nd and 3rd districts.
The 2nd District, headquartered in Elgin, was reduced geographically, now covering just five counties — DeKalb, Kendall, Kane, Lake and McHenry.
The old 21-county
3rd district, which meets in Ottawa, will expand to 28 and includes DuPage County.
Under the redrawing, Democrats appear to have ceded the 4th and 5th district to the Republicans while maintaining Cook County.
Up for grabs will be the 2nd and 3rd districts, which will be within reach of both parties.
It’s a political and policy morass with many details yet to be resolved. They include a potential legal challenge.
That’s why the Illinois Supreme Court issued an order Monday that leaves the politics to the politicians while maintaining the policy status quo.
Exercising their supervisory authority over the Illinois courts and citing the “numerous changes” contained in the legislation, the justices ordered that “appeals and other matters shall continue to be filed in the judicial districts as they existed on June 3, 2021, until further order of the court.”
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-393-8251.