Oct. 15—Republicans said Thursday that Democrats are trying to tip local courts in their favor through the once-every-10-years redistricting process and taking actions to bypass Illinois House and Senate committees in the creation of new congressional district maps for the state.
Democratic lawmakers were vague in their responses to the GOP complaints, or they sidestepped or refused to answer the questions, as Tuesday's kickoff to this month's six-day veto session approaches.
Democrats who control the General Assembly have said they plan to use the veto session, scheduled for Oct. 19-21 and Oct. 26-28, to approve new district maps for Illinois' U.S. House districts, and new maps for current judicial subdistricts.
The number of congressional districts in the state is dropping from 18 to 17 because of changes in population documented by the 2020 Census. New maps being drawn by the legislature will be used for elections in 2022 and beyond.
State Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, Republican spokesman on the House Redistricting Committee, said at a hearing in Springfield that he is concerned Democrats are considering creating new judicial subcircuits in downstate areas such as those covering Sangamon, Peoria and Champaign counties. No subcircuits currently exist in those areas.
Butler said he thinks Democrats want more subcircuits to allow for the creation of more positions for Democratic elected and appointed judges who might be more likely to side with Democratic policies that are challenged in the courts.
"You're going to continue to drive this change, this progressive change across the state of Illinois, that you would like to see, that the governor would like to see, not only in the legislature but in the judiciary," Butler said.
House Redistricting Committee chairwoman Rep. Lisa Hernandez, D-Cicero, didn't say during the hearing why Democrats were considering new subcircuits in counties of 150,000 or more population. She said she didn't know whether any independent groups or judges have called for more subcircuits.
Senate Democratic lawmakers have avoided commenting outside committee hearings and the Senate chamber, and all questions from the news media have been funneled to a Senate staffer.
When asked about Democrats' interest in potential new subcircuits, that staffer, Reena Tandon, pointed to a previous news release that quoted Sen. Elgie Sims, D-Chicago, vice chairman of the Senate Redistricting Committee.
"As demographics evolve and populations shift, it's important our judicial system reflect(s) those changes," Sims said in the release. "By updating judicial subdistrict boundaries, and potentially creating new subdistricts in areas that have seen population growth, we will be giving residents a greater say in who should be entrusted to uphold the laws of our state."
But Butler said there has been no testimony or requests from downstate circuit court judges, the Illinois Supreme Court or state's attorneys calling for the potential creation of new subcircuits.
The only subcircuits now operating inside judicial circuits are in the Chicago area and parts of northern Illinois.
"I would plead with you that if that is the intention of the majority, let's start having those conversations instead of going through the supposed motions and then unveiling something that no one has had any discussions or input about," he said.
Democrats on the House and Senate committees professed ignorance when asked by Republicans about a recent story in Crain's Chicago Business that said, "What's known for sure is that three-person panels — comprised of aides to House Speaker Emanuel "Chris" Welch, Senate President Don Harmon and Gov. JB Pritzker — have been meeting separately in recent days with every Democratic member of the state's congressional delegation to see what they want out of decennial reapportionment."
Hernandez and Sims said they either weren't aware of any such meetings or hadn't read the Crain's story, respectively. Sims wouldn't say whether he would look into the issue.
Butler and Sen. Steve McClure, R-Springfield, said such meetings threaten to usurp the authority of the committees in charge of guiding the congressional redistricting process.
"It's a very troubling report to read that things are happening behind the scenes," McClure said.
Jaclyn Driscoll, spokeswoman for Welch, D-Hillside, confirmed that the meetings have been taking place with Democratic members of Congress and staff from Welch, Harmon and the Democratic governor's office. But Driscoll said no negotiations are going on with the members of Congress on what future district maps should look like.
The situation is similar to the spring, when Democratic leaders from the state House and Senate met privately with Democratic incumbents, Driscoll said.
"Much like in the spring session, collecting feedback from members is an important part of the process," she said. "They know their constituencies best."
She said Republican incumbent members of Congress from Illinois have been invited to testify at redistricting committee hearings but haven't accepted the offers.
In fact, U.S. Reps. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, Adam Kinzinger, R-Channahon, Mary Miller, R-Oakland, Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, and Darin LaHood, R-Peoria, put out a joint statement last week criticizing the process.
"We encourage the Republicans to participate in this process instead of continuing their efforts to obstruct at every opportunity," Driscoll said. "The legislative map passed was the product of over 50 public hearings and thousands of pieces of testimony from people all across this state. It's saddening to hear Republicans call these public hearings 'phony,' when instead we should be encouraging participation."
Spokespeople for Pritzker and Harmon, D-Oak Park, didn't respond to requests for comment.
Sims said it's unfair for Republicans to criticize the redistricting process when they refuse to come up with their own proposed congressional map. Republicans said they won't do that because they believe an independent commission, not politicians, should be appointed to draw state legislative maps and congressional maps.
"It's a rigged system of your design," Sen. Jason Plummer, R-Edwardsville, told Sims.
Sims, however, said the legislature's role in drawing new maps at least every 10 years is laid out in the Illinois Constitution.
He said he and his Democratic colleagues are committed to passing maps "that reflect the great diversity of our state."
The five days of redistricting committee hearings held by the Illinois House and Senate the past seven days have attracted even fewer members of the public and fewer good-government, ethnic and racial groups to testify than during the state legislative redistricting hearings this spring. No members of the public attended Thursday's hearings in Springfield.
Madeleine Doubek, executive director of the CHANGE Illinois Action Fund, said she suspects the lack of interest is because of everyone's frustration with the inconvenient and technical nature of the process, and the fact that proposed maps during state legislative redistricting were released only hours before they were approved in the House and Senate.
Democrats have said the decennial redistricting has been the most transparent, open and convenient process in the state's history because of Zoom hearings, weeks of hearings in various parts of the state and an online portal that allows people to submit suggested maps to the redistricting committees.
But the hearings in the spring and this month have been held during the day, while most citizens are at work, Doubek said.
People and organizations are less likely to take an interest when they can't see a draft of a map first, and they are less likely to comment on the congressional maps when Democrats have a history of largely disregarding requests to give the public more time for meaningful input, she said.
"There's such a level of frustration and discontent with the process," she said. "I wonder whether people have given up on their state government in Illinois."
The state legislative district maps are being challenged in separate federal lawsuits by Republican leaders in the House and Senate and by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
In addition, Illinois African Americans for Equitable Redistricting has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice about the state legislative district map signed into law by Pritzker. The group said the map would reduce the number of majority-Black voting districts.