Judges question lawyers in redistricting suits

  • This is part of the map of new state Senate districts in Illinois. Opponents say  the redrawn state House and Senate districts dilute Latino voting power in the Chicago area and Black voting power in the Metro East region near St. Louis.

    This is part of the map of new state Senate districts in Illinois. Opponents say the redrawn state House and Senate districts dilute Latino voting power in the Chicago area and Black voting power in the Metro East region near St. Louis. www.ilsenateredistricting.com

 
 
Updated 12/7/2021 5:39 PM

Oral arguments began Tuesday in three lawsuits challenging the new legislative district maps that lawmakers passed earlier this year with three federal judges in Chicago asking detailed questions of all the parties in the cases.

Each of the cases centers on the question of whether Democrats in the General Assembly violated the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 in drawing the maps by diluting the voting power of racial and ethnic minorities -- specifically, Hispanic voters in the Chicago area and Black voters in East St. Louis and the surrounding Metro East region.

 

Among the questions the judges asked was if voters of different races and ethnicities in Illinois still vote as identifiable blocs, whether the exact composition of a district really matters or if there is enough "crossover" voting in the state that minority groups can still win representation in the General Assembly even though they are minorities within their own districts.

"Illinois in 2020 is not your grandfather's Illinois," Sean Berkowitz, an attorney defending the maps passed by the General Assembly in August and signed by Pritzker in September, told the judges.

Berkowitz pointed to the fact that there are a number of Black lawmakers in the Statehouse who do not come from predominantly Black communities. He also pointed to the fact that even though whites make up the largest racial group in Illinois, the current lieutenant governor, attorney general and secretary of state are all Black, while one U.S. senator, Tammy Duckworth, is Asian American.

Plaintiffs in the cases include a group of Latino voters in the Chicago area represented by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Black voters in the Metro East region represented by the state and local branches of the NAACP as well as the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations; and Republican leaders in the General Assembly.

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Those attorneys spent the morning trying to convince the judges that racially polarized voting continues to exist in Illinois and that if the maps approved by the legislature are allowed to stand, Latino and Black voters will lose political influence.

In particular, they argued that many of the minority members of the General Assembly were first appointed after their predecessors stepped down in the middle of their terms.

As a result, they argued, the number of minority lawmakers in Illinois was largely the result of Democratic Party officials, not necessarily the voters in their districts.

"Voters should not have to rely on the benevolence of party leaders" to receive fair representation, one attorney for the Republican plaintiffs said.

All three sets of plaintiffs have submitted proposed remedial plans that would redraw House and Senate district lines in the areas of the state they are contesting. But it wasn't clear Tuesday whether the court would accept any of those plans, even if it does find a legal or constitutional violation in the approved maps.

Although lawyers in the case still have another week or so to submit additional rebuttal briefs in the case, the judges have indicated they intend to issue a ruling as quickly as possible so the case does not interfere with the 2022 election calendar.

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