CAPITOL RECAP: In court documents, Democrats deny racial gerrymandering claims


SPRINGFIELD –  Lawyers for the General Assembly’s Democratic leaders filed documents in federal court Wednesday, Nov. 24, denying that newly drawn state legislative district maps amount to racial gerrymandering, instead accusing the plaintiffs in the three lawsuits of trying to use race to redraw districts for their own purposes.

Among other things, 2020 U.S. Census numbers showed Illinois had lost population overall since the 2010 census. But there had been a substantial increase in the state’s Latino population while Black and white populations both declined.

In separate suits, Republican leaders and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, both argued that despite the growth in the Latino population, the new maps actually reduce the number of districts in which Latinos make up a majority, or a large plurality, of the voting age population. They argued that violates both the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In another suit, the East St. Louis Branch of the NAACP, along with the NAACP’s state chapter and the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations, argued that in the Metro East area, Black voters were split into three separate House districts to protect white Democratic incumbents.

All three suits name Senate President Don Harmon, of Oak Park, House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, of Hillside, and the Illinois State Board of Elections as defendants.

A three-judge federal court panel in Chicago is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the three separate cases starting Tuesday, Dec. 7.

In their court filing Wednesday, however, lawyers for the Democratic leaders denied any constitutional or legal violation.

“The September Redistricting Plan ... protects minority voting strength and provides Hispanic and Black voters more than an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice,” their brief states. “The three plaintiffs have failed to provide evidence to support otherwise and have not demonstrated that the September Redistricting Plan violates the Voting Rights Act or the U.S. Constitution.”

Earlier this month, the three sets of plaintiffs submitted their proposed revisions to the maps. MALDEF proposed changes in the Chicago area that would create 10 largely-Latino districts in the Chicago area, while Republicans proposed creating an 11th Latino district in Aurora.

The NAACP plaintiffs and the Republicans both proposed redrawing the Metro East region to create a largely-Black House district in East St. Louis.

In their response Wednesday, however, the Democratic leaders argue that none of those proposals overlap with each other and that each would have ripple effects that would affect neighboring districts that have not been contested.

“In other words, plaintiffs have proposed three competing remedial plans, with no proposal for reconciling the differences,” attorneys for the Democrats wrote.

The Republican proposal, Democrats argue, “purports to fix a racial gerrymander on the northwest side by itself racially gerrymandering Latinos in and out of districts and politically gerrymandering throughout the region.”

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CONGRESSIONAL REDISTRICTING: Gov. JB Pritzker on Tuesday, Nov. 23, signed legislation redrawing the state’s congressional district maps, saying they reflect Illinois’ diversity and preserve minority representation.

Due to the state’s declining population, Illinois will have only 17 congressional seats after the 2022 elections, one fewer than it currently has.

Because most of the state’s population loss occurred in southern Illinois, the new maps combine what are currently the 12th and 15th Districts, held by Republican Reps. Mike Bost and Mary Miller, respectively, into a new 12th District that covers most of the southern one-third of the state.

Miller, however, has indicated she might run in the newly-drawn 15th District, which stretches from west-central Illinois eastward across the state, curling around the city of Champaign and stretching back west and south to an area just west of Collinsville.

It also creates a new 13th District stretching from the Metro East region across a narrow strip of land through Springfield and Decatur, to Champaign.

In the Chicago metropolitan area, the maps create a new largely-Latino 3rd District that currently has no incumbent while also putting Democratic Rep. Marie Newman’s residence in the same district as fellow-Democratic Rep. Jesús “Chuy” Garcia.

Newman, however, has indicated she intends to run in the new 6th District where she would face Democratic Rep. Sean Casten in a primary.

Elsewhere, the new maps link Rockford, the Quad Cities, Galesburg, Macomb and Bloomington into one large C-shaped district.

Analysts at the Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave the new maps an overall grade of F in the categories of partisan fairness, competitiveness and compactness. They estimate the maps create 14 likely Democratic districts and three likely Republican districts.

The Illinois delegation is currently split between 13 Democrats and five Republicans.

The political reform advocacy group CHANGE Illinois, which has advocated for an independent redistricting commission, also harshly criticized the new maps, saying it was designed to produce “predetermined winners and losers in nearly all 17 districts.”

Pritzker, however, said the maps align with the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Illinois Voting Rights Act, which requires redistricting plans to preserve clusters of minority voting groups that are large enough and cohesive enough to exert collective electoral power.

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ASSAULT WEAPONS BAN: In its latest round of opinions Thursday, Nov. 18, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld a Village of Deerfield assault weapons ban via a deadlocked decision.

The decision was split 3-3, with Justice Michael Burke abstaining from the vote, meaning an appellate court’s ruling that allowed the ban was upheld as the final decision. Burke was part of the 2nd District Court of Appeals which heard the case previously.

The case centered around a narrow window written into a state’s amendment to the FOID Act in 2013, which allowed home rule municipalities to adopt stricter gun laws if they passed an ordinance within 10 days of the law’s effective date, July 9, 2013.

Deerfield did so within the law’s parameters, but the court was asked to decide whether the village’s 2018 amendment to its ordinance that banned civilian use of assault weapons and large capacity magazines was an extension of the 2013 action or a new law altogether.  

In 2019, a Lake County judge ruled in favor of gun rights groups and Deerfield resident Daniel Easterday, who sued to block the ordinance and claimed it was in violation of the state’s FOID and concealed carry laws.

But the 2nd District Appellate Court later overturned that decision, ruling that the 2013 FOID amendment created “a hybrid balance of regulatory power between the state and local governments,” and “Deerfield preserved its power to regulate assault weapons concurrently with the state when it enacted its 2013 ordinance.”

While the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal, the 3-3 deadlock means the appellate court decision remains in effect.

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FOID RIGHTS RESTORED: A 2020 ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court which declared gun rights to be civil rights was key to a Thursday decision which restored Putnam County man Thomas Brown’s right to a FOID card.

Brown was a FOID cardholder for several years, most recently applying for and being granted renewal in 2013. But in 2016, he tried to purchase a gun at a federal firearm licensee, leading the Illinois State Police to conduct a background check. That unearthed a 2001 conviction in California on a “misdemeanor offense of inflicting corporal injury on a spouse” that he did not disclose on his FOID application, according to a court filing.

California law provides that after a period of 10 years a person convicted of a misdemeanor can no longer be penalized for gun possession. Brown’s lawyers argued that because Brown was eligible to own a gun in California after 10 years, that means he had his “civil rights restored,” satisfying a specific exemption in federal law that allows for his gun ownership.

The court agreed, stating that “California law does not apply to Brown in a vacuum,” and he does not have to show an “affirmative statement of restoration” from the state of California in order to show that he had his civil rights restored.

The fact that California does not consider gun ownership a civil right did not matter in this case, because, the court wrote, “this court unanimously concluded (in the 2020 Johnson case) that restoration of firearm rights under the FOID Card Act constitutes ‘civil rights restored’ for purposes of federal law”

It was necessary for Brown to show that he satisfied that exception in federal law, because the state’s FOID Act specifically states that granting relief to a person who is appealing their denial cannot be done in violation of federal law.

Outside of that question, the Supreme Court determined that the Putnam County court did not abuse its discretion in determining that Brown met all the other criteria to have his gun rights restored.

The Supreme Court noted it had to rule only on whether the circuit court abused its discretion in determining whether Brown met the criteria, which also state that an applicant must not be dangerous and that granting them a FOID card cannot be against the public interest.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.