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Seventh Circuit ends 50 years of federal oversight of Illinois governor’s office

In a Friday ruling, the Chicago-based appellate court repealed an anti-corruption consent decree on the governor's office dating back to 1972.

CHICAGO (CN) — Fifty years of federal oversight over the Illinois governor's employment policies ended Friday afternoon, in a ruling handed down by the Chicago-based Seventh Circuit.

The decision vacates a 1972 anti-corruption decree as it applies to the Office of the Governor, paving the way for governors to manage their own hiring practices without having to clear them with a federal judge.

"The power to hire, fire, and establish accompanying policies needs to return to the people of Illinois and the Governor they elected," the ruling states. "The federal courts will remain open to decide individual cases of alleged constitutional violations should they arise. But no longer shall the Governor’s employment practices and policies have to win the approval of a United States court."

The origins of the so-called Shakman decree run back to the 1960s, when Illinois' long history of corruption and political patronage was becoming too much to ignore. State officials at the time, as well as those in the Chicago Democratic political machine centered on the Daley family, regularly handed out government positions to their friends and political allies, often in exchange for campaign contributions or vote pledges.

In 1969, a reformist Democrat named Michael Shakman, along with his supporter Paul Lurie, filed a class action lawsuit against the Democratic Organization of Cook County in federal court. The suit alleged that this form of patronage based on political or party loyalty violated the First, Fifth and 14th Amendments, and while the district court initially dismissed the suit, the Seventh Circuit reversed that dismissal in 1970.

Over the next two years the parties hashed out a settlement agreement. It resulted in the 1972 consent decree which, among other things, established that the state could not “condition, base or knowingly prejudice or affect any term or aspect of governmental employment, with respect to one who is at the time already a governmental employee, upon or because of any political reason or factor.”

In practice, the 1972 Shakman decree meant that the employment decisions of the governor's office and other state bodies were all subject to approval by a federal court. The consent decree was further expanded in 1979 and 1983 to include other units of local government, leading to decades of continual compliance actions running through the courts.

"By our measure, six different federal judges have overseen the case since its inception in 1969, with at least 1,000 status reports filed since the original consent decree took effect in 1972. The federal docket now includes over 10,000 entries—the first from October 1969 and the most recent from this week," Friday's ruling states.

The Shakman decree also led to the creation of government bodies meant to stop politically-motivated hiring and firing before it ever escalated into a court case. In 2015, the Illinois Inspector General's Office established the Hiring & Employment Monitoring Division, whose stated purpose is to conduct "compliance-based reviews of State hiring and employment procedures and decisions to ensure that they are lawful, merit-based and/or justifiable."

However, Friday's ruling from the Seventh Circuit opines that the 1972 decree, at least as it applies to the governor's office, constitutes federal overreach over state business. Handed down by conservative U.S. Circuit judges Frank Easterbrook and Michael Scudder, appointed by Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, respectively, it found that such extensive federal oversight violates "principles of federalism."

"The Governor remains subject to the original 1972 decree to this day—50 years later—despite having demonstrated substantial compliance with its terms and objectives in recent years," the ruling states. "Principles of federalism do not permit a federal court to oversee the Governor’s employment practices for decades on end in circumstances like this."

The third member of the Seventh Circuit panel hearing the case - U.S. Circuit Judge Michael Kanne, a Reagan appointee - died on June 16 and did not participate in the decision.

Easterbrook and Scudder's decision continues the recent conservative judicial trend of stripping the federal government of its powers. But it was a civil procedure motion from the office of liberal Democratic Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker that led to Friday's ruling.

In July 2020, Pritzker asked U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang, a Barack Obama appointee, to terminate the 1972 Shakman decree. He argued that his office had already accomplished the goals the decree attempted to achieve.

"The State has accomplished the objectives identified by the Court to address the requirements of the 1972 decree. For eighteen months now, the State has had a comprehensive Exempt List and an Employment Plan for Exempt Positions – agreed to by the Plaintiffs and the Special Master, and approved by the Court," Pritzker's motion to vacate stated. "The State also has instituted a robust and permanent oversight structure... which ensures that allegations of political discrimination and patronage in hiring and employment will receive thorough review and investigation by an experienced and independent team of oversight professionals."

After Chang denied this motion in March 2021, Pritzker's office filed an appeal, which the circuit court granted.

"Leaving the Governor subject to the 1972 decree is no longer warranted or tolerable. Governor Pritzker has demonstrated substantial compliance with the decree and identified and instituted durable remedies to help ensure that compliance sticks," the Seventh Circuit ruling states.

Despite vacating the 50-year-old decree, the two-judge panel said that individual instances of corruption or patronage in the Governor's hiring practices could still be brought before the District Court.

"The district court is not closing. To the contrary, it will remain open and receptive to individual claims brought by persons able to allege concrete and particularized injuries as a result of unlawful patronage practices by the Governor or departments under his supervision," the ruling states.

In a prepared statement on the ruling, Pritzker said he was "gratified" that the Chicago-based appeals court had acknowledged his stated commitment to ethical employment policies.

"With the end of this 1972 decree and the enormous work required by the ongoing federal monitoring, the State can focus our efforts on ensuring effective and efficient hiring that allows us to better fulfill our obligations to the people of Illinois," Pritzker said.

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