Over the vocal objections of Republicans, Democrats who control the General Assembly prepared Wednesday to approve a bill that would create seven new judicial “subcircuits” in Sangamon and five nearby counties.
The Illinois House Redistricting Committee voted 6-4, with Republicans all voting “no,” to move Senate Bill 928 to the House floor for a vote later in the day.
Republicans complained that the bill, introduced about one hour before committee debate, gave Republicans, judges and the general public virtually no notice about legislation that would create new subcircuits in Sangamon, Madison and DuPage counties and make changes to how some circuit court judges are elected in the Chicago area and other downstate communities.
“This is politicizing the judiciary to an extent we’ve never seen in this state, and it’s disgusting,” state Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, said during the committee meeting. “It’s pure partisan politics at its worst form.
“It’s a complete power grab… to completely redo the court system in your little progressive ways,” Butler said.
The Senate was expected to address and potentially vote on the measure, as well, on Wednesday before lawmakers leave Springfield for the week after meeting just one day because of concerns about rising COVID-19 cases statewide.
But in protest, the 18 Senate Republicans indicated they would remain off the Senate floor until enough Democrats arrived in Springfield to establish an in-person quorum of 30 lawmakers.
“If the Democrats want a power grab of our courts, they can do it on their own,” said Senate Minority Leader Dan McConchie, R-Hawthorn Woods. “The judicial branch, above all, should be held to a higher standard than this sort of politicization.”
Democrats said the goal of the legislation is to increase diversity among judges, but the top circuit judge in the 7th Judicial Circuit said the bill may not have its intended impact, at least in the Springfield area.
Local courts in Illinois are divided into 24 judicial circuits with elected judges from those circuits. Springfield is in the 7th Circuit, along with the rest of Sangamon County and all of Macoupin, Morgan, Scott, Green and Jersey counties.
The bill would create “subcircuits” within the 7th Circuit and require a certain number of judges to be elected from each of seven subcircuits. The current circuit has no subcircuits.
The majority of Springfield would be its own subcircuit, with the rest of Sangamon County in another. Each of the other five counties — Greece, Jersey, Macoupin, Morgan and Scott — would have its own subcircuit. Democrats initially proposed a total of three subcircuits — two in Sangamon County and one covering the remaining five counties.
The legislation wouldn’t affect the terms of any current judges or any retention votes every six years. The bill also wouldn’t increase the number of judges in the 12-judge circuit.
In the latest version of the legislation, three judges would be elected from the first subcircuit, which contains most of Springfield. Three judges would be elected from the second subcircuit, containing the outskirts of Springfield and the rest of Sangamon County.
One judge would be elected at large — from throughout the circuit — and one judge would be elected from each of the five other counties in the 7th Circuit.
The legislation would convert four of the five existing at-large judge positions into resident judges, who must be elected from a subcircuit in Sangamon County.
These four-judge positions, plus the two existing residential judgeships in Sangamon County, would create a pool of six judge positions that would be distributed to the new subcircuits in the county.
Current judges would not have to meet any new residency requirements. When they leave office, assuming it’s after 2024, when the legislation would take effect, the newly elected judges would have to meet the updated residency requirements.
The at-large judgeship that remains after the first four have been converted to resident judgeships would stay at-large.
Democrats said the legislation would help Black and Hispanic judges win seats in the 7th Circuit and statewide.
“The creation of new subcircuits in DuPage, Sangamon and Madison counties will give minority communities a better opportunity to elect candidates of their choice and influence elections,” according to a joint statement from Democrats on the House and Senate redistricting committees.
Data released by Democrats in the Illinois Senate show that the first proposed subcircuit, containing the urban core of Springfield, is 22.22% Black and 3.31% Hispanic and has a population of 104,435. This subdistrict would have a significantly higher number of minority residents than the other proposed subdistricts.
The other subdistricts would range in population from 91,908 to 4,949.
Democrats said the legislation wouldn’t increase the number of judges but give people in minority communities more of a chance to elect judges who look like them.
“It maintains existing circuits while more accurately reflecting these circuits,” said Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez, D-Cicero, chairwoman of the House Redistricting Committee.
Presiding 7th Circuit Judge John “Mo” Madonia is both an at-large judge in the circuit and its top administrator.
When asked whether the proposed changes would actually increase diversity among local Circuit Court judges in the short term, he said, “I don’t know if this process will accomplish the goal.”
The 7th Circuit bench is entirely white and always has been. There has never been a Black or Hispanic judge elected in the 7th Circuit.
This fact, combined with the fact that sitting judges would be allowed to keep their seats, means the effects of legislation’s effects wouldn’t be felt until the circuit’s sitting judges leave office, Madonia said.
That could take years, he said.
Two of the five at-large judges whose seats may be converted were elected in November 2020. The rest are all in their 40s, Madonia said.
The legislation would result in more judges being required to live in Sangamon County and fewer judges who could be elected from the rural counties of the 7th Circuit.
“If I was in one of the rural counties, I would feel left out,” Madonia said.
Every one of the seven judges whose offices may be converted to resident judgeships in the newly created subcircuits lives in either the first or second subdistrict already, he said.
When asked if the conversion would cause additional burdens or financial costs for the circuit, Madonia said the impact wouldn’t be significant.
Madonia said he was not consulted about the bill.
Republican legislators have already blasted Democrats for being shut out of the process used to write the legislation.
Hernandez said there has been “ample time” for input from the public and lawmakers during redistricting hearings in 2020, But Butler said he never has received information from Democrats on details of how subcircuits in parts of the state without them would operate.
“I have asked for months, literally months, about circuits and subcircuiting,” he said.
Butler was a vocal critic of the process used to create the new maps for state legislative districts over the summer. He levied similar criticism against the subdistrict proposals, citing the lack of public input and feeling shut out by the Democratic majority.
“I think this is even worse than what happened with the legislative and congressional maps,” Butler said.
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January 5, 2022 at 05:10PM