SPRINGFIELD — A referendum on amending the Illinois Constitution to take the process of redrawing legislative districts out of the hands of the General Assembly won’t be on the Nov. 8 ballot, but that won’t prevent redistricting reform from being a major campaign issue.
In a 4-3 decision that split along party lines, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a ballot measure creating an independent commission to redraw district boundaries went beyond the scope allowed for a petition-driven initiative. Referendums placed on the ballot through petitions are limited to making “structural and procedural” changes to the General Assembly.
The court’s partisan divide sets up redistricting to be yet another contentious issue in an election season following a yearlong budget standoff between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly.
The four justices who were elected to the state Supreme Court as Democrats found that the redistricting proposal from the group Independent Maps, which gathered more than half a million signatures in support of its effort, is unconstitutional because it would’ve assigned new duties to the state auditor general.
“Therefore,” Justice Thomas Kilbride wrote for the majority, “the proposition supported by Independent Maps must fail.”
The three justices elected as Republicans strongly disagreed.
“In direct contradiction of the clear and unambiguous intention of the people who drafted the constitution and the citizens who voted to adopt it, the majority has irrevocably severed a vital lifeline created by the drafters for the express purpose of enabling later generations of Illinoisans to use their sovereign authority as a check against self-interest by the legislature,” Justice Robert Thomas wrote in one of three dissenting opinions.
Critics of the current redistricting process say it protects incumbents and puts too much power in the hands of the party that controls the legislature.
Rauner has made redistricting reform a major plank of his “turnaround agenda,” and he frequently accuses Democrats, especially long-serving House Speaker Michael Madigan of Chicago, who also heads the state Democratic Party – of blocking an idea that’s popular with voters in both parties.
The People’s Map, a group of minority business and community leaders that challenged the proposed redistricting amendment because they believe it would weaken minority voting rights, is represented by election lawyer Michael Kasper, who’s represented Madigan and a long list of other Illinois Democrats. Madigan denies any connection to the case.
On Governor’s Day at the Illinois State Fair last week, Rauner spoke of a “political machine” that has taken over much of state government, including the judicial branch.
“That machine is in court right now, trying to block fair maps, trying to take power away from you, trying to deny you the vote,” Rauner said, adding, “That machine elects a lot of those judges. This is Illinois.”
But during a visit to Marion on Friday, Rauner sidestepped questions about whether the state’s high court is part of the “rigged system” he said is responsible for the state’s fiscal and economic woes.
“Our entire system is broken,” he told reporters.
Rauner has spent much of the past month traveling the state in an attempt to pressure lawmakers to approve a ballot question on term limits for elected officials, another issue the courts have said can’t be addressed through a petition initiative. He’s now expanding that message to include redistricting reform.
“Republicans want it; Democrats want it,” the governor said Friday. “The General Assembly should put it on the ballot.”
Not always clear in Rauner’s message is that any action lawmakers take at this point wouldn’t put those questions on the ballot until 2018.
It is clear, however, that the GOP wants to make term limits and redistricting campaign issues this year.
Several Republicans, including state Sens. Jason Barickman of Bloomington, Chapin Rose of Mahomet and Dale Righter of Mattoon and legislative candidates Paul Schimpf of Waterloo and Dave Severin of Benton, criticized the court ruling.
David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, said the way the court divided plays right into Republicans’ hands.
“It’s unfortunate there was a partisan split, because this state is divided enough as it is,” Yepsen said.
He said the ruling is “going to increase public skepticism about government and politics” and “cause erosion of confidence in the judiciary.”
“It gives Republicans a real issue to talk about,” Yepsen said.
The Illinois State Board of Elections certified the November ballot Friday without the redistricting referendum, but it could be added through a court order.
Independent Maps spokesman Jim Bray said the group’s lawyers are still evaluating whether to ask the Supreme Court for a rehearing.