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Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

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Foiling a Republican maneuver to block Senate action, supermajority Democrats on Wednesday continued their efforts to reshape the Illinois judiciary — including Champaign County.

The GOP refused to participate in the Senate process, hoping to prevent Democrats from achieving a quorum. But Democrats rounded up enough absent members — including at least one who announced he has the coronavirus — to block the maneuver.

State Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, said he and his fellow Republicans were “not showing up out of protest” over heavy-handed Democratic tactics. He identified the Democrat with the coronavirus as state Sen. Michael Hastings of Tinley Park and noted individuals in that condition are banned from entering the State Capitol.

The failure to block a quorum means Democrats will pass a massive rewrite of rules surrounding local judicial elections.

Democrats contend the changes are about increasing “diversity” on the bench outside Cook County. Republicans say the only diversity their opponents care about is electing more Democrats.

Champaign County is among many affected counties. The evolving proposal calls for all three local circuit judges currently elected from the six-county Sixth Circuit to run only in Champaign County in future elections.

This change was proposed several months ago by state Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana, who complained that judges are overwhelmingly White and male.

The transition takes effect on the retirements of circuit judges Jason Bohm, Randy Rosenbaum and Roger Webber.

Champaign County has six circuit judges — three at-large and three resident. The resident judges are Ramona Sullivan, Ben Dyer and Sam Limentato.

Appointed to fill vacancies, Dyer and Limentato are up for election in 2022.

Rosenbaum, presiding judge in Champaign County and chief judge for the Sixth Circuit, said he is aware legislation is pending but has seen no specifics.

“I sent a letter to the representatives to reach out and talk. But I haven’t heard anything,” he said.

Although reluctant to discuss the matter, Rosenbaum acknowledged legislators can act without notice.

“The legislature has the power to do anything it wants with the judiciary, and that’s what it is doing,” he said.

The Sixth Circuit, made up of Champaign, Douglas, Piatt, Macon, Moultrie and DeWitt counties, is one of many facing changes.

The Seventh Circuit, dominated by Sangamon County, will be divided into seven sub-circuits.

Sangamon County will have two sub-circuits — one from Springfield and the other from areas outside the state capital. Each of the other five counties in the circuit will also become a sub-circuit.

The legislative fight broke out Wednesday morning when Democrats revealed their proposal and indicated they planned to pass it quickly out of the appropriate committees as well as the full House and Senate.

From the start, Democrats did not seem worried about achieving a quorum, with Senate President Don Harmon sarcastically suggesting that Republican Senate Leader Dan McConchie “invite members to the floor for a robust debate.”

When that happens, Democrats will again squash the numerically challenged GOP.

Democrats’ focus on trial judges reflects their latest effort to use the redistricting process to maintain and/or expand their political control of the courts.

Earlier this year, for the first time since the early 1960s, they redrew Illinois Supreme Court districts to give their party an advantage in upcoming elections.

In doing so, they moved around dozens of counties in four Supreme Court/appellate districts. Champaign County was shifted from the Fourth to the Fifth District.

Illinois’ five Supreme Court districts elect seven justices — three from Cook County and one each from the four other districts. Given political realities, that means Democrats control all three Cook County seats and need only one more to have a majority. They currently hold a 4-3 majority.

Illinois’ five appellate/Supreme Court districts are divided into 24 separate circuits that include the state’s 102 counties.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-393-8251.

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