Supreme Court refuses to intervene in gerrymandering cases: What Illinois lawmakers want to do

Saying it's none of its business, a 5-4 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that partisan gerrymandering of congressional and state legislative districts will be allowed to continue.

The case involved a Republican-drawn congressional district map in North Carolina and a legislative district drawn by Democrats in Maryland. But Illinois leaders and "fair map" advocates were following the case closely because of the state's own long-documented history with rigging political district maps to help a specific party.

Madeleine Doubek, executive director of CHANGE Illinois, a nonpartisan anti-gerrymandering government research group, called the Supreme Court's decision a "failure of their duty."

"And they were cowardly in their refusal to protect the concept of one person, one vote," Doubek said. "But that ought to make all of us more committed than ever to advocate on our own behalf."

State Sen. Bill Brady, a Bloomington Republican, urged his legislative counterparts to approve a joint constitutional amendment that he said will "create a new, nonpartisan system for drawing maps."

"A healthy democracy requires competitive elections and new ideas, which is in the people's best interest," Brady said. "We need to take the power of drawing legislative maps away from politicians and put it in the hands of the people."

A supermajority of state senators in Illinois have signed on as sponsors of a constitutional amendment to depoliticize the map-drawing process.

If approved by a three-fifths majority of both chambers of the legislature and then voters, a special commission would be created to draw the district map. It would be made up of seven Democrats, seven Republicans and two non-politically affiliated nominees chosen by the Illinois Supreme Court chief justice and the most senior justice from the opposing party, state officials said.

Ultimately, Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan would have to call for a vote on the constitutional amendment. Madigan fought such a plan just a few years ago that would have wrested control of the state's political map drawing process from him.

"I believe it makes it more urgent than ever that all of us rise up and pressure the parties that be to take this up," Doubek said.

Critics of Illinois' current system often point to the state's 4th Congressional District, which contains two large chunks of Chicago's northwest and southwest neighborhoods sandwiching the 7th District. It's often referred to as the "Pac-Man" district because it looks like the 4th District is eating the 7th District.

Thursday's Supreme Court ruling dealt a huge blow to efforts to combat the redrawing of district lines to benefit a particular party. Voters and elected officials should be the arbiters of what is a political dispute, Chief Justice John Roberts said in his opinion for the court. Federal courts are the wrong place to settle these disputes, he said.

"We have never struck down a partisan gerrymander as unconstitutional - despite various requests over the past 45 years. The expansion of judicial authority would not be into just any area of controversy, but into one of the most intensely partisan aspects of American political life," Roberts wrote.

The decision, on the last day before the justices' long summer break, has no effect on racial gerrymandering challenges. Courts have barred redistricting aimed at reducing the political representation of racial minorities for a half-century.

But the outcome brings an immediate halt to lawsuits that sought to rein in the most partisan districting plans that can result when one party controls a state's legislature and governor's office.

In the short term, Republicans are the prime beneficiaries of the ruling. They made dramatic political gains in the 2010 election just before the last round of redistricting, so they have controlled the process in many states. Democratic voters had persuaded lower courts to strike down districting plans in Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin. The one Republican suit came in Maryland, against a single congressional district.

Redistricting will next take place in 2021, once 2020 census results are available.

In a dissent for the four liberals, Justice Elena Kagan wrote, "For the first time ever, this court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities." Kagan, in mournful tones, read a summary of her dissent in court to emphasize her disagreement.

Partisan gerrymandering at its most extreme "amounts to 'rigging elections,'" Kagan wrote, quoting retired Justice Anthony Kennedy in a case from 2004.

The practice allows politicians to "cherry-pick voters to ensure their re-election," she wrote.

• The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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