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Three-judge panel declares Illinois legislative redistricting plan unconstitutional

A panel of three federal judges decided that the state Legislature's June 2021 legislative redistricting plan violated the U.S. Fourteenth Amendment in a Tuesday night ruling, while on Wednesday the state Senate Redistricting Committee dealt with criticism of their own plan for Illinois’ new congressional districts.

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (CN) — A three-judge panel declared Illinois' June 2021 state legislative redistricting unconstitutional on Tuesday night, in a rebuke to the state Legislature's Democratic-controlled State Board of Elections.

The judges' opinion is the result of a condensed lawsuit brought by groups both to the left and the right of the state Democratic Party: the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Illinois Republican Party. Both groups alleged that, as the June redistricting plan was based on preliminary 2015-2019 state population estimates made by the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey and not the official 2020 Census results, it violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The equal protection clause mandates that states must offer their residents "equal protection of the laws." The June 2021 redistricting plan, the judges opine, apportions state legislative districts in such a way that some districts are severely under-populated, while others are severely over-populated.

The three judges on the Northern District of Illinois panel were U.S. District Judge Robert Dow Jr., a George W. Bush appointee, 7th Circuit Judge Michael Brennan, a Donald Trump appointee, and Northern Indiana Chief District Judge Jon DeGuilio, a Barack Obama appointee.

"In the context of challenges to a redistricting plan, the Supreme Court has held that plaintiffs living in malapportioned districts who can show the districts 'disfavor[ed] the voters in the counties in which they reside[d], placing them in a position of constitutionally unjustifiable inequality vis-a -vis voters in irrationally favored counties' have standing to advance a Fourteenth Amendment challenge," the judges' written opinion said.

The order enjoins the State Board of Elections from holding elections under the June redistricting plan, and orders both the Board and the plaintiff groups of the lawsuit to submit revisions to the redistricting plan by Nov. 8, 2021. These plans must also include explanations as to how the proposed revisions would correct the deficiencies of the June redistricting plan.

The June redistricting plan was already amended — and re-signed by Governor J.B. Pritzker — in late September after the full 2020 Census state population data became available. These amendments were driven by discrepancies between the census data and the American Community Survey's 2015-2019 estimates. The judges' written order accounts for this change. While maintaining that the September redistricting plan is insufficient to correct the June plan's unconstitutionality, it holds the September revisions are a good starting point for the parties' ordered revisions.

"In selecting a new plan going forward, we will consider in the first instance the revised September Redistricting Plan submitted by the state through Public Act 102-0663... To the extent that the September Redistricting Plan does not pass muster, Plaintiffs are invited to submit proposed alternative maps for the Court’s consideration accompanied by a statement explaining (1) the constitutional or statutory defects in the September Redistricting Plan and, (2) how the revisions or alternatives cure such defects," the opinion reads.

The judges' ruling on the state legislative map was not the only redistricting issue discussed in the Illinois state capital this week. On Oct. 15, state Democrats released their proposal for Illinois' new federal congressional districts. Due to Illinois' population falling by about 12.8 million people over the last ten years, the state's allotment of congressional districts will decrease from 18 to 17 seats as of the next election cycle.

There was discussion throughout August and September that it was Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger's central Illinois 16th District on the chopping block, but the Democrats' proposed map also makes significant changes to Democratic Rep. Marie Newman's 3rd District.

The 3rd District currently encompasses parts of the Southwest Side of Chicago as well as much of southwestern Chicagoland's suburban and industrial areas. The Democrats' proposed map on Friday would expand it significantly to the south and west to include rural areas — and parts of the current 16th District — stretching into central Illinois. It would also eliminate much of its coverage in Chicago. This change was met with criticism by numerous 3rd District residents on Wednesday. They argued in a public hearing held by the State Senate Redistricting Committee that the change would make the district significantly whiter and more conservative, to the detriment of its remaining residents of color.

"We ask that the committee maintain the historical boundaries of District Three," said Dale Fast, a Professor Emeritus of Biology at St. Xavier University in Chicago's southwestern Mount Greenwood neighborhood. He pointed out, alongside other speakers, that the 3rd District has a history of racial diversity and working-class industry that would be threatened under the Democrats' proposed plan.

Another speaker said that she did not want to to see her home district's voting power diluted by "miles and miles of farmland."

Alternatively, Andrew Ellison, an Indiana native and former legislative assistant for the Illinois House of Representatives, argued that the 3rd District as it currently exists should be eliminated entirely. He pointed out that the district has a history of producing both political corruption and politically-conservative white Democrats — including its former representative Dan Lipinski, who was rare among Democrats in opposing Obamacare and abortion rights.

"The 3rd District as it exists... is a money pit," Ellison said.

In his own proposed congressional map, Ellison suggested that the district be split to create two majority-Black districts and one majority-Latino district along Chicago's South and Southwest sides.

The state Legislature is expected to approve a final congressional map before the end of its fall session, which concludes on Oct. 28. As both the state's House and Senate are controlled by Democrats, it is expected that they will approve a congressional map which preserves their party advantage and cuts one Republican-held seat.

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